Greg Eno

Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Monday Morning Manager 2011, Edition 4

In Baseball on April 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Last week: 5-1
This week: SEA (4/26-28); at Cle (4/29-5/1)

So, What Happened?

Now THAT’S more like it!

MMM is feeling almost giddy this morning, in wake of a very impressive sweep of the struggling White Sox and taking the Mariners, two-out-of-three.

Those Tigers must have read MMM last week, because in this space it was discussed how important it was for the Bengals to take advantage of a bad team (Seattle) and a slumping one (Chicago).

In the words of George W. Bush, “Mission accomplished!”

When a team like the White Sox is underachieving and they come to your place, all you want to do is beat them and get them the heck out of town before they catch fire. And the White Sox did look bad, didn’t they? Sheesh!

Yes sir, a 5-1 week which lifted the Tigers to 12-10 definitely puts a smile on MMM’s often crabby face.

Hero of the Week

Let’s hear it for Alex Avila, the nepotistic (is that even a word?) catcher who fans wanted to run out of town after Opening Day.

All Avila is doing is smacking the baseball all over the alleys, against righties or lefties, and delivering runs to the plate in the process. He’s also stuffing a sweat sock into the mouths of those who were all over his case just a couple weeks ago. He certainly wore out the White Sox over the weekend.

This couldn’t have come at a better time, what with Victor Martinez on the DL, forcing manager Jim Leyland to play AA against lefties, too. And the kid is responding.

Avila is one of those lefty swingers who can look like he’s got the smoothest stroke in the world (like right now), then can go back into flailing mode, just like that.

But right now Avila is hot, and good for him. He’s making papa—and MMM—proud.

Goat of the Week

MMM was going to name Phil Coke as GotW for his inexplicable start in Seattle last Tuesday, but instead 2B Will Rhymes is going to feel the wrath.

After winning the starting 2B job in spring training, largely because of his .300+ average last summer with the Tigers, Rhymes has hit nothing like he did in 2010. In fact, Rhymes is hitting nothing, period. He has zero—ZERO—extra base hits and his average is hovering around .200.

As a no. 2 hitter, Rhymes makes a good no. 9 guy. All he does now is lay down the occasional sacrifice bunt. Kind of like what a pitcher does at the plate.

MMM thinks it won’t be surprising to see Rhymes in Toledo and Scott Sizemore in Detroit before too long.

Under the Microscope

This may surprise some, but MMM is putting pitcher Brad Penny under the microscope this week.

The timing may be odd at first blush, given that Penny flirted with a no-hitter and totally shut the White Sox down on Saturday. But, strangely, that’s precisely why MMM is putting the veteran righty UtM.

Why? Because after such a poor start to his Tigers career, which caused many fans to look at him cross-eyed, now those same folks (and MMM, obviously) want to see if Penny is indeed coming around, or had one of those “every dog has his day” moments against the Chisox.

MMM will be paying close attention when Penny makes his next start on Thursday. This is the guy the Tigers chose to sign over Armando Galarraga. MMM thought it was a good swap at the time, and still believes that. For now.

Upcoming: Mariners and Indians

Last week MMM stated that the Seattle Mariners should be the tonic for what was ailing the Tigers, who took 2-of-3 in the Pacific Northwest. This week, MMM is stating that the Mariners should be a good team to play to keep the wins coming.

But beware: the M’s will start King Felix Hernandez on Tuesday and this kid Michael Pineda on Thursday, both of whom the Tigers missed in Seattle last week.

Felix is the reigning Cy Young winner, and Pineda might be this year’s Rookie of the Year. Pineda is 3-1 with a 1.78 ERA, and he’s only 22 years old. Pineda has 21 Ks in 25 innings and opponents are batting just .202 against him.

Then the Tigers travel to Cleveland to face the surprising Indians.

The way the Tribe is playing, and with CF Grady Sizemore back in the lineup, this series will have shades of 2007-08 all over it, when the Indians were among the beasts of the Central Division.

While no one expects the Indians to contend all summer, part of the beauty of baseball is its long season and finding out if good, surprising starts can be sustained, and if bad starts can be overcome. The Indians are certainly in the former category.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next week!

Red Wings Super Pest Helm Does it All

In Hockey on April 24, 2011 at 3:48 pm

If Darren Helm weren’t a person, he’d be a popcorn kernel stuck under your gum. If he were a TV character, he’d be Bobby Brady on that date with his brother Greg. If he were a beverage, he’d be sour milk.

Let’s hear it for the hockey pests!

There is precedence for what Helm, the Red Wings’ annoying, maddening, mighty mite of a forward, did to the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the playoffs. And it has its roots right here in Detroit.

Bryan Watson was a marginally talented hockey player who broke into the NHL in 1963 with Les Canadiens du Montreal, an organization that didn’t fiddle around too much with marginally talented hockey players, as a rule.

Watson was a 5’9” plugger whose eyes were always about to swell shut. He looked more like a tomato can boxer who all the other fighters used to pad their record. Of course, boxing and hockey in those days were practically subsidiaries of each other.

Watson came to the Red Wings in the summer of 1965 in the intraleague draft. He wasn’t yet 23 but already had two NHL campaigns under his suspenders, though they totaled just 44 games between them.

Red Wings GM/coach Sid Abel saw something he liked, though, and he tabbed Watson to play for his club, mostly as a defenseman—mainly because Watson was about as offensively gifted as a pitcher with a baseball bat.

Yet Watson suited up for all 70 of the Red Wings games in the 1965-66 season, netting two goals by accident and registering seven assists because he showed up every night. But Watson was a man of big numbers—when it came to minutes spent in the penalty box.

Watson racked up over two hours’ worth of penalties in ’65-’66—133 minutes to be exact. He did so by playing half his game inside his opponents’ jerseys and the other half inside their heads.

The Red Wings were one of the four teams to qualify for the playoffs in the spring of 1966—these were the days of the Original Six—and they drew the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Only, back then, they were the Black Hawks. Don’t get me started as to why they changed it.

Chicago’s superstar was one Robert Marvin Hull, a.k.a. Bobby, the Golden Jet.

The left winger Hull, the previous spring, popped in 10 goals in the playoffs, in just 14 games. He added seven assists for 17 points, leading the league in both categories. In fact, in his five previous playoffs, Hull netted 32 goals. Every playoff, it was a Hull of a spring.

But coach Abel had a plan for his Detroiters, in trying to contain Bobby Hull.

Abel went to Watson, a defenseman, and told him that he’d be playing forward, expressly for the purposes of being Hull’s worst nightmare.

From the moment they dropped the puck for Game 1, to the time the Red Wings eliminated the Black Hawks in six games, Watson dogged Hull. Watson was a fly and Hull was you-know-what.

For six games, Watson irritated Hull, and he did so with a smirk on his corduroy face with the swollen eyes.

Hull himself, in a moment of begrudging admiration, called Watson a “pest.”

But Watson’s teammates, notably Gordie Howe, slapped another nickname on Watson.

“Bugsy,” they began to call him.

Watson pestered and bugged Hull so much that the Golden Jet was grounded. Hull managed to score just two goals in the series, one year after dominating the postseason. In fact, Watson matched Hull’s goal total that spring, netting two in 12 games for the Red Wings, who lost a heartbreaking Finals to the Canadiens.

Bryan “Bugsy” Watson’s legend was born in the spring of 1966, as he became the first officially acknowledged hockey irritant.

Others came after Bugsy—guys like Kenny “The Rat” Linseman, Patty Verbeek, a.k.a. “The Little Ball of Hate,” and Theo Fleury, who in his prime had a bounty placed on his head by half the league.

Now here comes Helm, the 24-year-old who looks 14, and he’s going to need a nickname pretty soon. That, and a good lawyer, because it won’t be long before opponents start asking judges for personal protection orders against him.

Helm is from Winnipeg, which is so ironic it’s ridiculous, because his play may have just sent the Coyotes back to that Manitoba burg, as the team’s future remains clouded.

Helm’s legend began two springs ago, when he scored the series-winning goal in overtime against the—fittingly so—Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals, the goal that sent the Red Wings into the 2009 Cup Finals.

At a players and media gathering held before the Finals at the RenCen downtown, I approached Helm as he sat alone, unbothered by the press, at his designated table. I found it odd that no one wanted to talk to the kid whose goal sent the Red Wings to the championship round for the second year in a row.

It wasn’t long before I discovered why; you needed the hearing of a hunting dog to pick Helm’s words up. If he were anymore soft-spoken, he’d be mute.

As I strained to hear him, Helm gave me a bunch of “aw, shucks” and “I’m just having fun” and he was so enamored by his talented teammates I thought he was going to excuse himself to go ask for autographs.

But that’s the Darren Helm off the ice. The Helm on the ice has just emotionally scarred the Coyotes for life.

Helm, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series, was a one-man wrecking crew. His combination of speed and aggressiveness and talent bothered the Coyotes relentlessly.

The speed is bad enough. Helm traverses the ice from end to end like he’s always skating downhill. Whether he’s pursuing puck or person, Helm is Carl Lewis on skates.

Then once he catches you, Helm really gets nasty. It’s not enough that he moves like the Roadrunner; he has to act like Dennis the Menace while he’s at it.

In Game 4, Helm did more on the Red Wings’ second goal of the night than most players do in a week.

He raced behind the Coyotes net on a play that looked as dead as the octopuses that are tossed onto the Joe Louis Arena ice. After arriving, Helm crunched a defenseman so hard that the poor guy took out his teammate—a two-for-one job. Not finished, Helm then assumed control of the puck, skated to the left side of the Phoenix goal, spotted teammate Patrick Eaves at the right of the crease and delivered a perfect pass that Eaves slam-dunked into the net. If it were basketball it’d have been an alley-oop play.

The Red Wings are preparing for the second round now partly because of the spirited, frenetic, incessant play of Darren Helm, the team’s quiet pest. Forty-five years after Bugsy Watson blazed the trail, the Red Wings have spawned another virulent player.

Let’s hear it for the hockey pests!

Monday Morning Manager 2011, Edition 3

In Baseball on April 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Last week: 4-3
This week: at Sea (4/18-20); CWS (4/22-24)

So, What Happened?

The Tigers somehow won four games last week with an offense that couldn’t punch its way out of a paper bag.

The week began ominously with a Justin Verlander loss to the hot Texas Rangers. which is unfair to even write because JV was excellent; the Tigers got shutout, however, dropping them to 3-7. Tigertown was aghast.

Two straight walk-off wins over the Rangers ensued, followed by a shutout of the Oakland A’s out west (thanks to the stellar pitching of starter Phil Coke) on Thursday. On Friday night, the Tigers took advantage of a boatload of walks from A’s pitchers—and a clutch, ninth inning homer from Miguel Cabrera to tie the game—to win going away in the 10th inning.

Then the Tigers slipped, dropping the last two games in Oakland as the A’s starters vexed the Tigers’ woeful offense.

MMM is beyond cranky with the rinky-dink offense. Even minus Magglio Ordonez, as the Tigers have been a lot already, a .245 team batting average is unacceptable. And MMM will say it again: sophomore Austin Jackson‘s struggles are more than alarming. Someone better get this kid turned around before his confidence is ruined irreparably.

Hero of the Week

In what is sure to be one of many, many times this season, MMM is going with Miguel Cabrera as its HotW.

Miggy won the game on Tuesday with a walk-off single, and saved the Tigers’ bacon Friday night in Oakland with a solo homer in the ninth inning of a game where the Tigers looked dead, despite trailing just 1-0.

What’s amazing about Cabrera is how hard—and far—he can hit baseballs that aren’t in his wheelhouse. Then again, what isn’t in Miggy’s wheelhouse? Whether he’s jammed or challenged up high or enticed by a low, outside offering, Cabrera drives the ball. It’s uncanny. Even his outs can be majestic and exciting to watch.

If not for Cabrera last week, MMM thinks the Tigers likely would have been 2-5 instead of 4-3. And that’s a mighty big difference, especially when you entered the week 3-6.

Goat of the Week

This may sound like MMM is copping out, but the choice for last week’s Goat goes to the entire offense.

It’s been since the home opener that the Tigers have struggled mightily to push runs across the plate. It just seems so hard for them right now. If they’re not hitting home runs, they’re not scoring, and that’s beyond disturbing.

So many can be indicted: Ryan Raburn; Austin Jackson (still); Will Rhymes; and several more. The team batting average says it all, along with the anemic on-base percentages that dot the roster.

MMM wants and expects the bats to heat up soon, or else.

Under the Microscope

Back by popular demand (because I said so) is UtM, where MMM calls out a player as being looked at very closely by the Tigers fan base for the moment, and why.

Is it any surprise that the year’s first UtM “honoree” is CF Jackson?

A-Jax’s woes continue and it’s becoming the white elephant in the room. No one really wants to talk about it, but it’s there, folks.

Jackson looks confused and bewildered, which might be OK if you’re the family’s crazy uncle, but not so endearing in your baseball team’s starting center fielder and lead-off man.

That low rumbling you hear that is getting louder is the Tigers’ fan base growing restless about Jackson. His average is an unsightly .170 after another 0-for-4 on Sunday.

MMM is starting to sound like a broken record: a struggling Jackson is directly proportional to a struggling team offense.


Upcoming: Mariners and White Sox

The Seattle Mariners should be the tonic for the Tigers’ offensive struggles; the Mariners’ pitching staff stinks. And Seattle’s offense is even worse—dead last in the majors with a .214 batting average. Even Ichiro Suzuki is scuffling along at .254.

And—bonus—the Tigers will miss Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, who pitched on Saturday.

The Tigers MUST take advantage.

This weekend, the Chicago White Sox invade Comerica Park, and if a team has a worse bullpen right now than Ozzie Guillen’s bunch, MMM would like to see it.

The Chisox have already blown six saves this season, which is almost unfathomable.

“I don’t have a closer,” Guillen said bluntly the other day.

After scraping and clawing to get back to .500, the Tigers have to do it all over again this week. The opportunity is there—with the bad Mariners and inconsistent White Sox on this week’s menu.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next week!

Wings Expected Modano In Uniform, Not a Suit, During Playoffs

In Hockey on April 18, 2011 at 12:19 am

It’s easy to spot the scratched hockey player at the arena.

He’s the one in the loose-fitting suit, with hair that looks like it’s still damp from the shower. The face has clearly avoided the razor. There’s no necktie. He walks down the corridors looking like he jumped off the cover of GQ magazine.

The only thing worse than being a scratched hockey player, especially in the playoffs, is being a healthy scratched hockey player.

The healthy scratches can’t blame mysterious upper or lower body injuries for their absence. There’s not a cotton-picking thing wrong with them, physically.

And yet, the feet are in wing tipped shoes, not skates. There isn’t a helmet in sight. The hands are gloveless.

The healthy scratch isn’t in the lineup because, frankly, the coach found 20 other guys he’d rather have available that night. You can be kind and call the scratched player a victim of “the numbers game,” but that’s just a nice way of saying he’s 21st out of 20 for that evening.

Healthy scratches aren’t Hall of Famers, as a rule. They’re guys who have been benchwarmers throughout the season, or have been back and forth from the minor leagues ad infinitum, shuttled more than businessmen commuters at O’Hare Airport.

But then you look at Mike Modano and it’s OK to do a double-take, or even a spit take, if you like your humor more slapstick than subtle.

Mike Modano: sure-fire Hall of Famer, a veteran of the NHL playoff wars since the George H.W. Bush administration, a healthy scratch—for a playoff game?

This is like hiring Michael Caine for your movie and making him an extra.

But there Modano was, healthy as a horse but sitting in the press box on Wednesday night, dressed in a suit and not a uniform as the Red Wings were battling the Phoenix Coyotes on the ice surface three stories below.

Modano is 40, sure, but this is his time of the year.

Coming into this season, Modano had suited up for 174 post-season games, popping in 58 goals and amassing 145 points. He hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2008 when the Red Wings signed him last summer, but that wasn’t his fault—he played for the Dallas Stars, who have recently become allergic to the playoffs.

Suddenly, last summer.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Modano had turned 40 and was considering hanging up the skates, the Stars electing not to offer him another contract. He was born in Livonia and grew up in Westland, and the Red Wings are always looking for veteran depth. Maybe they could coerce the center man to give it another whirl.

So the Red Wings took a moderate risk and inked Modano after a brief courtship. He showed up to the press conference at Joe Louis Arena to announce the signing tanned, looking fresh, and still with those boyish good looks he had when he entered the NHL as an 18-year-old in 1989.

I wrote that Modano was defying the proper look for a 40-year-old hockey player. His face wasn’t stapled on, for one.

Modano looked good, felt good, and when he perused the Red Wings roster, he had high hopes that Detroit would be a fitting place to end his career with his second Stanley Cup (he won it in 1999 with the Stars).

For the Red Wings’ part, they saw in Modano a veteran playmaker and puck handler who could also win some face-offs—and maybe net 15-20 goals, too.

His signing meant some eager kids would have to wait their turn, but in Detroit, it’s always about winning now; there’s as much patience in Hockeytown as there is in a two-year-old in a car.

Both sides were thrilled. It was a marriage of convenience, but also with some endearment.

Modano got off to a slow start, although he did score a goal on opening night. After that, he struggled to get acclimated to his new teammates, and probably to wearing red after 21 years of wearing green and black.

It was starting to come together in November, but then came a nasty wrist injury late in the month, when a skate in Columbus gashed him.

The injury set Modano back three months; he returned in late-February, any momentum and chemistry that had been built flushed down the toilet.

It was like going back to the drawing board. But time wasn’t on Modano’s side; it never is for the 40-year-old athlete.

The season was furiously marching to the finish line, and Modano was the guy chasing the bus, clutching his briefcase and holding his hat on his head, yelling for the driver to stop.

The production after the injury was about the same as that of before the injury: it dripped out, like an IV.

Modano got into 40 games in the regular season, scoring four goals. No one had to tell him that his was a disappointing signing.

Then, in a flash, it seemed, the playoffs arrived, and when coach Mike Babcock and his staff sat down to fill out the lineup card for Game One, it was with great consternation that they left Modano’s name off it.

Mike Modano, healthy scratch. For a playoff game.

Not what anyone had in mind when the Red Wings brought the veteran, home-grown kid back to Detroit.

Modano has gone on record as saying that this is likely his last chance at the Stanley Cup, because retirement is beckoning him.

“I can’t stay on the ice as long,” he told the media a few days ago. “I think my body is telling me that I’m near the end.”

Modano says that he abides by the coach’s decision to not play him, and he vows to be ready at a moment’s notice. What else would you expect him to say?

Here’s the cruel irony: Modano came to Detroit to help the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup. Yet the more often his team wins in the playoffs, the less likely Modano is to crack the lineup, barring injury to a teammate.

“This is probably my last chance,” he said of chasing hockey’s Holy Grail.

How’s this? Modano might not even see the ice again this post-season. The mentality during hockey playoffs is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—i.e. lineups.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mike Modano, Hall of Famer, was supposed to be in uniform for the playoffs, not in a suit. One of the reasons the Red Wings signed him was for this time of the year, specifically.

I feel bad for the guy, don’t you?

Tigers Need 2010 A-Jax to Reappear Quickly

In Baseball on April 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm

It wasn’t all that long ago that I issued a severe weather watch.

Not a warning—that’s what you give when you see signs of brewage, like with a tornado—but a watch.

The directive was that Austin Jackson better have a good season, or else the Tigers offense would be working with one hand tied behind its back.

It was the opinion here that the second-year Jackson—not Miggy Cabrera or Magglio Ordonez or Victor Martines—is the most important brick in the team’s offensive house.

If Jackson doesn’t get on base with any consistency, I cautioned, then the Tigers’ house of cards collapses. The theory was that any good offense is keyed and triggered by its leadoff man, and since that’s Jackson’s job, it’s up to him to start setting the table for the big boys.

The “watch” part comes into play because this is Jackson’s second year after a terrific rookie campaign, and those sophomores automatically are placed under watch.

Now we can upgrade the severe weather watch to a warning.

Jackson went 0-for-4 last night in the Tigers’ 3-0 win over the Oakland A’s. And this wasn’t one of those hit-the-ball-hard-but-got-robbed kind of o-for-4s. This wasn’t the case of a guy being snakebit for a night.

Jackson was 0-for-4 and looked every bit the part, flailing at pitches and not looking real comfortable at the dish. His batting average has sunk to .184, the strikeout total still elevated (16 in 49 AB). The conditions that were right for a second-year slump have now materialized.

Yes, the Tigers have won three in a row. But they haven’t done so with a punishing offense. The team struggles to score runs on most nights, and it’s impossible not to connect those team struggles with Jackson’s personal ones.

For a leadoff hitter, the on-base percentage is the live-or-die statistic. If it were a person it would be Judge Joe Brown. There is no gray area when it comes to the OBP; you either have a good one, or you don’t. And there are no mitigating circumstances.

Jackson’s OBP is .259, sickly for even a No. 9 hitter. Or a pitcher.

As a result, the Tigers must scratch and claw for their runs, or wait for someone to hit a home run.

Even last night was an example—and the Tigers won.

The A’s pitching staff issued an unsightly 11 walks—1o of them unintentional. Yet the Tigers couldn’t scratch out a run until the seventh inning and used walks to edge ahead, 3-0 in the eighth inning.

An 11-walk affair ought to yield more than three piddly runs.

The lack of clutch hitting isn’t all Jackson’s fault, of course, but you can’t help but wonder where the Tigers offense would be if today’s Jackson was more like the 2010 Jackson who hovered at or above .300 most of the season.

You can turn a cross-eyed look at new Tiger Victor Martinez, too, who’s barely above .200 and looking like he’s trying too hard to impress.

But it’s Jackson, I maintain, who holds the future of the Tigers offense in his sophomore hands.

Nothing that’s happened in the first 13 games of the season has changed my mind. And it ought to convert others.

Monday Morning Manager 2011, Edition 2

In Baseball on April 11, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Last week: 2-4
This week: TEX (4/11-13); at Oak (4/14-17)

So, What Happened?

Buzz saw, meet the Tigers; Tigers, meet the buzz saw.

MMM had an inkling the Tigers might have the kind of week they had, given the nagging feeling that a slow start was in the offing, and the fact that the opponents were two teams that were primed to cause trouble: the Orioles because of their resurgence, and the Royals because they always play the Tigers tough.

Sure enough, the Tigers found the competition to be more than adequate for their slippery paws to handle, and they stumbled to a 2-4 record for the week.

The Tigers played suspect defense (to be kind), didn’t get much from their bullpen, and their bats went silent in the last two games against Kansas City.

It all added up to another .333 week, leaving the Tigers 3-6 for the season. And they are getting exactly what they deserve.

Hero of the Week

MMM is torn, because it was only one game out of six, but Justin Verlander gets the nod.

JV was stellar in Baltimore on Wednesday in a game the Tigers needed badly. A loss would have put them 1-4, and the O’s would have been 5-0 and with confidence soaring going into the series finale. The Tigers might have come home 1-5 if not for Verlander, who shut the O’s down with eight brilliant innings.

Verlander proved his status as the Tigers’ horse and ace: he won a game the Tigers needed to have to stop the bleeding, and he did it convincingly. That’s what your top gun pitcher is supposed to do, and he did it—big time.

MMM considered Jhonny Peralta, who’s been swinging a smooth stick so far, but sadly, none of Jhonny’s hits have really produced anything, other than a sweet batting average.

MMM also liked Phil Coke’s start on Saturday.

Goat of the Week

MMM is going to indict Austin Jackson, who has limped out of the gate with an average that’s less than his weight—and AJ’s not a big guy.

Consider this tough love, because MMM loves Jackson.

Yet this is what was feared in this space—that Jackson would find Year 2 much more difficult than Year 1. If you recall, Jackson sprang from the starting block last year like his hair was on fire. This year is the polar opposite.

MMM is also cranky with the team’s defense, which is leaving a lot to be desired. MMM has seen Little League teams play better with the glove than the Tigers have in these opening nine games.

The Tigers have been throwing the ball around recklessly and, apparently, aimlessly—and the pitchers are throwing wild pitches and wildly to first base during pick-off attempts.

Yes, the rubber wall that is catcher Alex Avila isn’t helping, as many of these “wild pitches” are either passed balls, truthfully, or at the very least, maybe there should be a separate “assist” column for catchers when it comes to wild pitches. Because Avila would be leading the league in WPA right now.

The defense isn’t as advertised—-it’s even worse.

Upcoming: Rangers and A’s

Ahh, nothing like an 8-1 Texas team when you’re struggling, eh?

That’s who the Tigers face starting tonight at Comerica Park.

But again, here comes Verlander, who will start the opening game against Alexi Ogando, who was excellent in his last start against Seattle on April 5; he pitched six strong, surrendering just two hits and no runs.

Once again, the Tigers need Verlander to be the horse and get them (again!) a much-needed win. It’s only April 11 and the Tigers have needed this kind of medicine twice already.

Then it’s off to Oakland with no travel day (though Wednesday’s series finale is an afternoon affair). The A’s are 4-5 but they’re no picnic in their ballpark.

The Oakland series is the start of one of those delightfully unpredictable west coast trips that you brace yourselves for, hoping for the best and expecting the worst.

This is, already, a crucial week for the Tigers. MMM knows you take comfort in seeing the Twins 3-6, and you’re not too fazed by the Indians’ 7-2 getaway, but these are seven big games. A bad week makes them 5-11 or something, and that’s not cool.

They can start by not kicking and throwing the ball around. And scoring without the benefit of the long ball would be nice, too.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next week!

NHL Playoffs: Pain Don’t Hurt This Time of Year

In Hockey on April 9, 2011 at 11:01 pm

The ankle inside Bob Baun’s skating boot was broken. It is the hockey player’s creed to never be helped from the ice unless amputation is on tap, but that’s what happened to Baun on April 23, 1964 at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium—he was the wounded warrior and his Toronto Maple Leaf teammates were his platoon members carrying him off the battlefield.

This was Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings led the Leafs, 3 games to 2, and were poised to win the Cup on their home ice. As Baun, one of the Maple Leafs’ best defensemen, was being removed from action, it looked like the hockey gods  were smiling down on the Red Wings.

But this is hockey, and it was the Stanley Cup Finals, and Bob Baun’s ankle was broken, not missing, so Baun did what the hockey player does, as much as his body is willing—he returned to the game, his boot taped to his ankle like a tourniquet.

The game went into overtime, with every rush up the ice by the Red Wings being potentially the one that could lead to the Cup-winning goal. The old red barn on Grand River and McGraw shook every time the vulcanized rubber disc would be flipped into the Toronto zone.

Overtime hockey is heart-stopping, gut-churning stuff. Never has a term been so aptly coined as “sudden death.” If the winning goal comes from the visitors, the air is sucked out of the arena like crumbs into a vacuum cleaner.

Baun, skating on his wobbly, broken ankle, stopped the puck just inside the Red Wings’ blue line and slapped a shot toward the Detroit net. It was hardly a rocket, but the puck had eyes and it found the twine behind goalie Terry Sawchuk.

The Maple Leafs celebrated like mad on the Olympia ice, the Detroit crowd dazed and silent. Baun could barely stand as his teammates mobbed him. The series was tied, a decisive Game 7 necessary.

The Maple Leafs won Game 7 in Toronto, 4-0, and snatched the Stanley Cup from under the Red Wings’ noses—thanks largely to the one-legged Bob Baun.

The Red Wings’ Brent Gilchrist wasn’t one-legged in 1998; he was no-groined.

It was another example of the playoff hockey player gone mad.

Gilchrist was 31 years old, in his 10th NHL season, and his first with the Red Wings as the 1998 playoffs dawned. Late in the season an old groin injury flared up inside Gilchrist, which didn’t hurt him unless he moved or breathed. Other than that, he was fine.

The pain was excruciating. To a hockey player, a bad groin injury is like a sore throat for a giraffe, to borrow an old, weary joke. And Gilchrist had a bad one, alright. With every stride he took on skates, the groin screamed at him to stop.

But these were the playoffs.

Gilchrist had himself injected, in his groin, before every playoff game he played in that year with needles as long as Pinocchio’s nose in a game of liar’s poker. Even his fellow hockey warriors didn’t care to look when Gilchrist went into the trainer’s room for his pre-game treatment.

Sometimes the shots would wear off and Gilchrist would have them done again between periods. He played in 15 of the Red Wings’ 22 playoff games in 1998, his groin on fire. His injury was so severe that Gilchrist only played in five games the following season.

But the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1998, so the pain was worth it to Brent Gilchrist, who’d never won the Cup before.

Steve Yzerman, on the other hand, was already a two-time Stanley Cup winner when he went into the 2002 playoffs on one good leg.

Yzerman hurt his knee during the 2001-02 season, missing 30 games. When the playoffs arrived, Yzerman was in great pain but as is usual with the playoff hockey player, Yzerman played the “mind over matter” game and, at age 37, Stevie Y was taking regular shifts on a knee that qualified for Federal disaster relief.

Yzerman even spent some time during the playoffs in a special hyperbaric oxygen chamber. But that was nothing compared to what he put himself through before games, like Brent Gilchrist four years earlier. Again, there were long needles involved and teammates looking the other way.

These were the playoffs, after all.

The Red Wings won another Stanley Cup, their captain by the end of the playoff run needing to prop himself from the ice with his hands because his knee wasn’t able to do it by itself.

And, like Gilchrist, Yzerman’s injury had after effects.

Following the 2001-02 season, Yzerman underwent a knee realignment surgery, which meant that he played during the playoffs with a knee that was misaligned, which—I don’t know about you—sounds as delightful as chomping on a candy apple with misaligned teeth.

The surgery was called an osteotomy, and doctors told us that it was commonly performed—on senior citizens!

Here’s a description of a knee osteotomy, courtesy Wikipedia:

Knee osteotomy is commonly used to realign arthritic damage on one side of the knee. The goal is to shift the patient’s body weight off the damaged area to the other side of the knee, where the cartilage is still healthy. Surgeons remove a wedge of the tibia from underneath the unhealthy side of the knee, which allows the tibia and femur to bend away from the damaged cartilage.

And Yzerman led the Red Wings to the 2002 Stanley Cup on a knee that needed the above work, forthwith.

Now it’s 2011, and already there is a walking wounded among the Red Wings before the playoffs even get started—leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg, who suffered a “lower body injury” in Carolina this week. Judging by the way Zetterberg left the ice, the lower body injury looks like something to do with his legs.

Zetterberg’s status, according to the propagandists within the Red Wings’ medical staff, is the unsatisfying “day-to-day.”

No doubt, maybe even as we speak, Hank Zetterberg is undergoing some sort of treatment, somewhere on his “lower body,” that is designed to deaden his pain and brainwash him into thinking that it’s not all that bad—until the playoffs end and they tell him that his lower body will have to be realigned.

Hey, after Bob Baun scored on a broken ankle and Brent Gilchrist had himself shot up with knitting needles and Steve Yzerman led his teammates to a Stanley Cup on a misaligned knee, it’s the least Zetterberg can do, me thinks.

These are the playoffs, for chrissakes.

Opening Day in Detroit Puts All Others to Shame

In Baseball on April 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

They have Opening Days in 30 big league ballparks every year but seeing as how we do it in Detroit, that’s like comparing 29 high school productions of “Cats” to the real thing on Broadway.

There’s Opening Day in Detroit and then there’s a facsimile everywhere else.

It’s the closest thing to an official holiday you’ll find minus the governor’s signature of approval.

It might not be quite like it was during the days of old Tiger Stadium, but we’re so far ahead of the other burgs, it doesn’t change our supreme status.

Opening Day is our baseball Mardi Gras. There’s dancing in the streets, musicians jamming, people in costume, painted faces and young men and women acting with questionable judgment.

There are people from all over the state and surrounding states, converging on the Woodward corridor, zig-zagging from pub to pub, stopping to say hi to the tailgaters, lifting a plastic cup with something amber in it to friends and strangers alike.

There are more coolers downtown on Opening Day than at any seaside beach in the middle of summer.

The word “drink” is spelled with an Old English D. So is “Detroit.” Or, simply, “The D,” as we are taking to call ourselves.

It’s the one day where you’re excused if you’re not a baseball fan, because EVERYONE is a baseball fan on Opening Day, so the point is moot. The overweight men in their Tigers jerseys pass the time with 12 ounces of something in their hand and giving a breathless take on why Brandon Inge is still the third baseman and fretting about the range of shortstop Jhonny Peralta and speaking in superlatives about Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.

Opening Day is a toddler with a Tigers bib and your great-granddad with a Tigers visor. Or vice-versa.

It’s “Sorry, boss, I won’t be in today” and the joke is, the boss never got the message because he/she is trolling around the ballpark, too.

Opening Day is the one baseball date of the year where people trudge downtown without a ticket to the game and with no intention of brokering one with a scalper. It’s also the one date where those with tickets might never get out of the watering hole to actually present it at the turnstile.

It’s booing the governor and the mayor and nowadays, sadly, it’s also looking to the sky and winking at Ernie Harwell and Sparky Anderson.

They don’t do Opening Day in the other big league towns like we do it in Detroit. Whether it’s gray and drab, like today, or with bright and sunny skies, it doesn’t matter—Sonny Eliot says it’s beautiful outside.

The only place you’ll see more RVs parked outside than you’ll see on Opening Day is at MIS in Brooklyn.

Opening Day is red, white and blue bunting on the facades and roaring if the first pitch is a strike, gasping if it isn’t and loving those creamy white home unis the Tigers wear in Detroit—still high baseball fashion and still classy.

Opening Day in Detroit is Sunday afternoons in Green Bay, spring break in Daytona and the Oktoberfest, rolled into one. And isn’t it fitting that this year we play it the same weekend as the Masters? Because not even that hallowed event can touch Opening Day, and the Masters is a whole weekend.

We’re serious about our Opening Days in Detroit. Calendars all over are circled as soon as the schedule is released by MLB. This year it’s on a Friday, which is like leaving the kids in a candy store for the weekend and telling them to lock up when they leave.

Opening Day in Detroit. It’s like no other. Or rather, no other is like Opening Day in Detroit. That’s better.

Monday Morning Manager is Back!!

In Baseball on April 4, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Another baseball season, another 26 weeks or so of the critically-acclaimed (work with me here) “Monday Morning Manager,” my weekly take on the Tigers.

Like last year, the format will be: 1. So, what happened (a brief look back on the games played the previous week); 2. Hero of the Week (self-explanatory); 3. Goat of the Week (even more self-explanatory); 4. A Look Ahead (brief previews of the Tigers’ upcoming opponents

Enjoy!!

********************************************
Last week: 1-2
This week: at Bal (4/4, 4/6-7); KC (4/8-10)

So, What Happened?

You want to believe that the Tigers can hang with teams like the Yankees, who figure to be in the playoff mix again this year, but if the opening weekend was any indication, this might be a tall order.

But first, let’s talk about Yankee Stadium, which is to ballparks what Verne Troyer is to people. The Yankees play in a mini-me ballpark. They don’t have to be the Bronx Bombers—just the Bronx Bums—in order to hit one out of that bandbox.

The Yankees hit nine home runs in the three games, and about a third of them would have been caught in most other major league stadiums.

Still, the Tigers once again struggled a bit with runners in scoring position, though they did drive in two runners from third base with less than two outs in the opener. Austin Jackson still strikes out, Brennan Boesch still swings at anything within 10 feet of the plate (but it worked for him on Sunday) and Miguel Cabrera is still a beast.

Hero of the Week

I have to go with Boesch, who kept the Yankees at bay Sunday by going 4-for-4 with a homer and four RBI. Cabrera hit two taters early, but Boesch was good all game long in helping to give the Tigers a much-needed win.

You think three games is nothing in a 162-game schedule? Then close your eyes and imagine the 0-3 Tigers starting a series in Baltimore today against the 3-0 Orioles. Not a pleasant image, is it?

Boesch is a free-swinger, but pity the pitcher who makes a mistake against this kid. His home run swing was majestic and very pre-All-Star Game Boesch-like. Yes, that’s a lot of hyphens but I don’t know of any other way to say it.

Goat of the Week

Like Mike Rosenberg said in the Free Press, starting pitcher Brad Penny didn’t come close to doing what starters are charged with doing: giving their team a chance to win. Penny gave up eight runs and the Tigers never really had a chance in their nationally-televised game on Saturday.

That said, I thought Rosenberg made a little much of one game; Penny had a bad outing, but look who he was facing, and look where the game was played.

The Tigers had a bit of a rough weekend in the Bronx, but if I had to pick on one guy, I’m picking on Penny. The game was on national TV, the Tigers had a chance to get the bad taste of Opening Day out of their mouth, and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees starter, had an ERA of over 5.00 in 2010. But the Tigers never had a chance, thanks to Penny’s fat pitches.

Upcoming: Orioles and Royals

The Orioles were one of the best teams in baseball last summer after making Buck Showalter their manager, and they are 3-0 after sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays over the weekend—in Tampa.

Too bad they play in a division that’s dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox.

But the Orioles will be celebrating their home opener today and this isn’t an easy team to play anymore.

The Royals are 3-1 after taking care of business at home against the Angels. And they KCers always play the Tigers tough, a tradition that’s been going on since they ruined the Tigers’ party on the last weekend of the 2006 season.

An interesting week ahead against two teams normally used as doormats for the rest of the American League.

Enjoy the home opener on Friday!

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next week!

Red Wings Need the “Real” Henrik Zetterberg Come Playoff Time

In Hockey on April 3, 2011 at 4:30 pm

A quick glance at the numbers ought to tell you a little bit about the superstar hockey player. The superstar player should have numbers that cause eyes to pop, spit takes to be made.

They all had such numbers.

Orr, LaFleur, Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman.

At any point in any given season, the stat lines on those players were in the stratosphere, compared to their mere mortal colleagues. They were “you gotta be kidding me” numbers.

And by the end of the campaign, it was an easy task to discern the greats from the very goods. The greats had goal totals in the 40s and 50s—sometimes more. The point totals were well into triple digits.

There were the superstar players and then there was everyone else.

Henrik Zetterberg, I’m convinced, must be sandbagging it. He’s a hockey hustler. Paul Newman on skates. We’ll call him Njurunda Fats.

Njurunda is the town in Sweden where “Z” was born, 30 years ago and some change.

Zetterberg is in the prime of his career, but you wouldn’t know it. He must be pacing himself.

Zetterberg has more talent in his left pinky than a majority of the players in the NHL possess in their entire bodies. When he’s at his finest, Hank Zetterberg is a tornado on skates. He can be as untouchable as Elliott Ness, as deft as Baryshnikov, as productive as a worker ant.

When the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2008, Zetterberg was the best player on a team full of stars. He pumped in 43 goals, added 49 assists, and started in the All-Star Game. Z began the season by scoring a point in his first 16 games, a new Red Wings record.

In the playoffs, Z cranked it up another notch, which the superstars do when you think they couldn’t possibly. In 22 games, Zetterberg blistered the opposition for 27 points. He scored the Cup-winning goal in Game 6 of the Finals. His penalty killing during a Pittsburgh Penguins 5-on-3 in the Finals is stuff of legend.

The Red Wings won the Cup, and Z won the Conn Smythe Award for being the MVP of the playoffs.

And this was after seasons in which he scored 39 and 33 goals. Zetterberg was on pace to be the greatest Red Wing in the post-Yzerman Era.

He had the eye-popping numbers and an eye-popping life. The summer after winning the Cup, Z got engaged to Emma Andersson, a Swedish model and TV host.

Iggy Pop used to sing, “I wish life could be…Swedish magazines.”

Hank Zetterberg lived that life.

Zetterberg is a huge talent—maybe among the top five most skilled, blessed-by-God players the Red Wings have ever employed.

So why do I look at him nowadays and scratch my head?

Zetterberg followed up his magnificent 2007-08 season with 32 goals in ’08-09—not bad—and then dipped to 23 goals last season (not good).

Currently, with six games left to play, Zetterberg has 24 goals and 53 assists. Those are good numbers. But they’re not as good as what Hank Zetterberg is capable of producing.

Zetterberg has so much skill, so much strength, so much hockey IQ, that he should routinely be scoring 40 goals a season and threatening 100 points, especially playing on a team as peppered with talent as the Red Wings.

The past couple of seasons, Zetterberg has done this thing where he disappears for stretches of time, and I’m talking games, not minutes. The final horn would sound and you’d have to double-check with the official scoresheet to confirm that Zetterberg suited up that night. Sometimes, this happened several games in a row.

This was a travesty. It was like attending a performance of the Rat Pack and wondering how you missed Sinatra’s number.

But then Zetterberg reappears from his time MIA, and once again he becomes a man among little tykes on the ice. He takes possession of the puck and keeps it for a week. Without the puck, Zetterberg doesn’t act as if there’s a force field preventing him from entering his own zone, like so many of the goal scorers do in the NHL.

Such is Zetterberg’s greatness that he’s maybe the team’s best defensive forward, perhaps 1A to Pavel Datsyuk’s 1.

Ahh, Datsyuk—Z’s frequent linemate.

Coach Mike Babcock doesn’t know what to do with those two half the time. When the mood strikes him, Babcock puts them together, creating a pairing so lethal that the third player on the line is like the Fifth Beatle.

Other times, Babcock breaks them up, figuring that each is so good that he can create a second lethal line, like splitting an amoeba.

Zetterberg and Datsyuk are two different players, though.

Where Datsyuk is a magician with the puck, relying on sleight of hand rather than brute strength to keep possession, Zetterberg is more bull in the china shop. If they were an NFL backfield, Datsyuk would be the tailback, Zetterberg the fullback. And each would rush for over 1,000 yards.

When Datsyuk went down with an injury earlier in the season, Zetterberg put the Red Wings on his back—at first. Then he faded away again, mysteriously.

The true superstars don’t fade away, they don’t vanish, they don’t have you scurrying to the scoresheet to verify presence. Hank Zetterberg has all the talent in the world. He ought to be a true superstar in a league that he owns if he plays up to his potential.

Check that—he should be playing in his own league.

Yet he’s not doing that right now, and he hasn’t for at least two seasons. He is, without question, a very good player most of the time. But he has the ability and skill to be great all of the time.

The playoffs are almost here and if the Red Wings are going to go as far as the folks around town think they can, they need the superstar Zetterberg to be there, night after night. Not the very good Zetterberg, sometimes.

Or maybe he is hustling us, and the Red Wings, with Zetterberg leading the way, will run the table.

That would be Swede.