Thursday, November 13, 2014

Missing Man

A season that's already been disrupted by injuries and internal controversy got cut a little deeper for the 49ers this week when the team announced that Patrick Willis, perhaps the team's only consistent force on defense, to say nothing of his leadership, would miss the remainder of the season. The culprit being a toe injury that seemed fairly benign, but managed to knock him out of action for several weeks before it was finally determined that surgery would be needed, ending his season before it ever really got going.

This wouldn't have been good news even if things had been going well for the 49ers, but given that Navorro Bowman has yet to play or even practice this season (the window for him to be allowed to practice at all this season shuts on Tuesday) and Aldon Smith is only now returning from his suspension (and who knows how that will go), a thin 49ers Linebacker unit losing its anchor feels that much more devastating.

Without Willis, the 49ers defense has been shorthanded, but they've still managed to play at a high level, which is a credit to both Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio, as well as Willis' replacement at inside Linebacker, Rookie Chris Borland. Though Borland is no Willis and will never be, Borland has kind of come out of nowhere to play really well, racking up 35 tackles in the past two games and being generally disruptive against the run and the pass. He also scooped up Drew Brees' fumble in Overtime on Sunday, setting the stage for the 49ers to win the game. Credit ought to go to Willis as well; Borland had seen some spot duty filling in the spot that Navorro Bowman would have been in were he available, and Willis has long had the habit of making the players next to him that much better. Hard to say Bowman would have become what he is now without the benefit of playing next to someone of Willis' stature, and lesser players like Michael Wilhoite and now Borland have emerged to have fine seasons—particularly Borland in this instance.

Still, for as well as Borland has played, he's still a Rookie and an unknown commodity at the kind of position where you tend to get overlooked unless you're Patrick Willis, or Lawrence Taylor, or some sort of other monstrous, otherworldly presence at that particular position. Willis is one of those players that everyone rallies around, a leader on the team in every sense of the word even though he might not have the panache of a Colin Kaepernick or Vernon Davis. Nobody's been more important to the team over the past 8 seasons and to now have to do battle without him is a blow that shouldn't be glossed over.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Filling In The Gaps

The signing of Michael Cuddyer, much like the signing of Curtis Granderson last season, won't make the Mets better by itself. But what these signings have done is added the presence of useful, helpful veterans that know how to succeed and win on the Major League level to a team that's generally comprised of younger players still figuring it out.

The Met outfield, particularly Left Field, was a point of contention throughout the 2014 season. Chris Young didn't work. Neither did anyone else they tried out there, whether it was Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Matt den Dekker, Andrew Brown, Josh Satin, Eric Young Jr., or the rest of a forgettable runaway mob of guys that weren't ever going to be an every day solution. Young was a strikeout waiting to happen and didn't finish the season. den Dekker struggled to bat his weight. Eric Young was exposed and returned to the super sub role he was better suited for. Satin, Brown, and other such memorables bounced between the minors and majors all season without making much impact. Thus a better answer was needed.

Michael Cuddyer, at age 35, isn't a long-term solution for the Mets, but he comes at a reasonable price, 2 years, $21 million, for a guy that's coming off some fine seasons with the Colorados after many years playing for the Twins during an era in which they enjoyed more than their share of success. An All Star in 2011 and again in 2013, Cuddyer's accomplishments have long been in the spirit of the team; more about the whole than the sum of the parts. The numbers are solid, but not eye-popping, the man not flashy, just consistent.

This is sort of what the Mets need. While Cuddyer isn't going to hit 35 Home Runs, there's nobody readily available to the Mets that's going to, for one. For two, unlike the pu-pu platter the Mets kept throwing out in Left Field last season, Cuddyer will actually play every day and more than likely will not hit .200 and strike out a third of the time. Though Cuddyer was limited to 49 games last season due to injury, his career track has generally been pretty healthy, and in his 49 games, he hit .332 with 10 Home Runs and 31 RBI—numbers that were markedly better than anyone the Mets were able to toss out in Left Field any of the last 3 years.

The argument on the other side of this of course, is everything I just stated. Cuddyer is 35, which is old as ballplayers tend to go, and he was injured for a majority of the last season, which isn't a good sign, and also that the Mets just haven't had a great deal of luck with Free Agent Left Fielders in recent memory. Some of us are still scarred from their last dalliance with someone of this particular ilk. Then, there's the whole draft pick issue. Cuddyer received a qualifying offer from the Colorados before bolting town, which meant that whoever signed him and a bah blah blah. The Mets, with their middling finish from last season, had the #15 pick in the draft which now goes to the Colorados. For a system that seems so predicated on prospects and developing talent, why give that up? Alderson wouldn't budge on this for someone like Michael Bourn.

And so here's why it makes sense now, Charleston:

By this point, the Mets and their fans are sick of rebuilding and waiting for prospects to pay off. All the prospects they have are just about to hit the scene in the Majors, if they haven't already. The farm system has been rebuilt and there's even more prospects on the horizon. There's enough prospects here already, and the Mets don't need one more, especially if the idea of a potential prospect is going to prevent the team from making a move that will help to bring in a player that's going to help the team Win. Now. Not that it hasn't already been discussed, but 2015 is no longer about waiting to see what the hell we have here, it's time to start filling in the gaps at the Major League level to make this into a complete, cohesive roster that will contend. Whoever the #15 draft pick in June 2015 ends up being, that guy isn't going to help the Mets in 2015. Michael Cuddyer is going to help the Mets. And that's why now, it makes sense to sacrifice the pick and get the player. And maybe do it again if the right player presents himself.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Save Your Season

New Orleans hasn't exactly been kind to the 49ers in recent years. Their Super Bowl loss there notwithstanding, they also played a game there in 2012 in which multiple players suffered season-ending injuries in a game they did ultimately win. Last year, they had a late lead, but a near-unconscionable roughing the passer call on Ahmad Brooks, negating a Drew Brees sack and fumble that might have given the 49ers the ball with a chance to run out the clock, allowed the Saints to tie and eventually win the game on a last-second Field Goal. Sunday, the 49ers were in New Orleans again, limping in with a record of 4-4 and in desperate need of a win in a difficult place to win in order to keep their incredibly dicey playoff hopes alive.

In a back-and-forth affair that saw the 49ers charge out to an early lead only to see the Saints come back and take a lead with under 2 minutes to play, the 49ers converted a miraculous 4th down play, as Colin Kaepernick, facing heavy pressure, scrambled around to keep the play alive long enough for Michael Crabtree to get open down the field. Kaepernick threw a mighty heave down the field and was able to find his sure-handed receiver for a 51-yard gain that put the 49ers in position to tie the game. In Overtime, Ahmad Brooks redeemed himself by once again sacking Brees and forcing him to Fumble, this time without a penalty, and the 49ers kicked the winning Field Goal and escaped New Orleans with a 27-24 win that for all intents and purposes saved their season, elevating their record to 5-4 and keeping their Playoff hopes intact.

The game wasn't on in New York, and of course I'd mentioned previously that the NFL put their previously free streaming audio service behind a paywall, which meant that I was relegated to following the game on my computer, while watching the lesser matchup between the Jets and the Steelers. Rather than hearing our old friend Kevin Burkhart, I was subjected to some lines on a screen and the dulcet tones of Kevin Harlan—that doesn't quite rate. But nonetheless, the 49ers have done well when Kevin Burkhart's been present, and they got off to a fine start on Sunday. Antoine Bethea intercepted Drew Brees on the game's 3rd play. The 49ers, who'd abandoned the run in previous weeks to little success, went back to where their bread had been best buttered for years and handed the ball to Frank Gore. It took 3 plays for Gore to plow his way into the end zone for a Touchdown that got the 49ers off to a 7-0 lead. After forcing a 3-and-out, the 49ers shoved their way down the field once again behind Gore and Carlos Hyde, and this drive again finished with a Touchdown, as Hyde scored on a 9-yard run to put the 49ers ahead 14-0.

But the hot start eventually stalled, as Brees turned back into Brees and started hitting his array of receivers with ease to move the Saints down the field and eventually put themselves on the board when Shayne Graham kicked a Field Goal. The 49ers next possession was short-circuited by an Offensive Pass Interference penalty on Anquan Boldin. The Saints responded by scoring a Touchdown when Brees hit Brandin Cooks for a 31-yard score. But the 49ers regained control of things on their following possession thanks to a pair of clutch catches from Boldin, one of which was caught in traffic for a 25-yard gain, and the second of which resulted in a Touchdown from 15 yards away to put the 49ers ahead 21-10.

The 49ers managed to keep the score where it was for the remainder of the half, although they didn't make it easy on themselves. Kaepernick, who'd had a reasonably good 1st half, capped things off by fumbling the ball away after a sack at the 49ers 42-yard line. This turned the ball over to the Saints in prime position to draw closer, but while trying to thread a pass in to Jimmy Graham, Brees was intercepted by Chris Culliver to snuff out the drive and send the game to halftime with the 49ers ahead, 21-10.

In the second half, the 49ers offense stagnated, while the Saints caught fire. Though Gore and Hyde continued to chew up yards on the ground, Kaepernick dissolved into a number of checkdowns, sacks and incompletions. In all, the Saints got to Kaepernick 4 times, which wasn't as bad as the miserable 8 sacks he suffered at the hands of the Rams last week, but still wasn't very good, and continues to underline the problems the 49ers have had on the offensive line. Though Joe Staley and Mike Iupati have played at their usual high level, the 49ers have been suffering through the loss of Center Daniel Kilgore, out for the season, and Anthony Davis, who's missed several games. Kilgore's replacement, Rookie Marcus Martin, hasn't quite gotten his sea legs under him, and opposing defenses have been able to exploit this. The Rams did it last week, and the Saints did it again on Sunday, and while the 49ers plodded along, the Saints came back thanks to a pair of Brees-to-Jimmy Graham scores, one of which came late in the 3rd Quarter to make the score 21-17, and another coming two plays after the two-minute warning in the 4th Quarter that appeared to put the Saints in position to win the game, 24-21.

So, the 49ers, who have had issues all season finishing out games now appeared to have this problem that's plagued them all year now spell their ultimate downfall. On the road, in a stadium that's always a challenge to win in, with the specter of a 3rd straight loss and a 4-5 record staring them in the face, the 49ers had to come up with a clutch drive in response. If not, well, you may as well kiss their asses goodbye for 2014.

This drive that would ultimately save the 49ers season didn't start out well at all. Boldin started out by dropping a 1st down pass, and on 2nd down couldn't hang on to a low pass. On 3rd down, Michael Crabtree couldn't hang on to another pass.

Then came the 4th down play. Kaepernick had to slide out to his right to avoid a blitz, and somehow managed to stay upright long enough for Crabtree to find himself open deep down the middle of the field. Kaepernick wound up and uncorked about as clutch a pass as he's ever thrown, landing safely in the arms of Crabtree for that key 51-yard game that would set up Phil Dawson to tie the game with a Field Goal.

Still, the Saints had one final opportunity with :44 seconds left, and they almost pulled off a counter-miracle with time expiring. The Saints attempted the old Hail Mary play from midfield, and amid several players leaping for the jump ball, Jimmy Graham caught the pass and landed in the End Zone for what appeared to be a Game-winning score. Fitting that this was how it would come down, after the 49ers had to battle back the way they did. But flags flew all over the place as Graham shoved Perrish Cox in the back before he jumped for the ball, and although Cox probably could have won an Oscar for the flop he took, the Offensive Pass Interference call was pretty clear. The Touchdown was negated, and the game moved to Overtime.

In Overtime, the Saints managed to move the ball across midfield, and although they had a convertable 4th down play, they decided to punt the ball away to the 49ers. But the 49ers could do nothing with the ball on their first possession and ended up punting the ball back to the Saints, with Andy Lee doing what he usually does and pinning them deep in their own territory.

This, of course, set the stage for Ahmad Brooks to strip-sack Brees, sending the ball flying forward where Chris Borland, an unsung Rookie who's really come on strong in the absence of Patrick Willis, recovered the ball. Opting to not screw around, Jim Harbaugh immediately sent Dawson out for the Field Goal attempt, and although Dawson kicked an ugly knuckler that seemed to take a right turn in midair, the kick went through the uprights and the 49ers had saved the game, their season and their sanity with a 27-24 win.

Clean, this was not, and the 49ers haven't really played a clean game all season. This hasn't been an easy season for the 49ers and they've really had to claw their way to the 5 victories they have. The injuries to the offensive line have been bad enough, and that's not even getting to the players they've been missing on defense. But the Defense, oddly enough, has been the unit that's been carrying them this season. In spite of not having Aldon Smith or Navorro Bowman, and with Patrick Willis still ailing, the defense has been making the necessary plays. It's been guys like Chris Borland that have been stepping up. Borland has been positively Willis-like these past two weeks, racking up 19 tackles against the Rams, and had a hand in another 17 against the Saints, in addition to coming up with the key Fumble recovery in Overtime. Whatever it is, the 49ers did what was necessary to get themselves a tough win in New Orleans. Next, a trip to our neck of the woods to play the Giants, always an interesting matchup. Perhaps I'll find my way to New Jersey for this one, although given the escalating price of tickets for these games, it doesn't seem especially likely. We'll see.

Monday, November 10, 2014

deGroundswell

I'm often reminded of how funny the game of Baseball can be, perhaps as a microcosm of life itself. At the outset of the season, I picked Travis d'Arnaud to win the National League Rookie of the Year. Not so much because I thought he was going to win it, but because I wasn't a believer in Billy Hamilton and I didn't really familiarize myself with the remaining crop of National League Rookies for the upcoming season. As it would turn out, my pick was right Church, wrong Pew. A Met did take home the 2014 National League Rookie of the Year award. However, back in March, one would not likely have picked Jacob deGrom to be the Met to grab the honor. Yet, here he is, after a season where he didn't see the Major Leagues until May 15th, missed 2 weeks in August with an injury and got shut down with a week left in the season, the 5th Player in Mets History to bring home this particular piece of Hardware.

But measure deGrom's season against other National League Rookies and it's pretty easy to see how deGrom won the award fairly easily. Hamilton struggled to bat his light weight, as I surmised he would, and he fell victim to one of Baseball's great vicissitudes because you can't steal 1st Base. Kolten Wong, a comer, just wasn't especially exciting. So, given the weak crop of Rookies in the NL, it shouldn't be too surprising that deGrom was able to walk away with the Mets first Rookie of the Year award since Dwight Gooden a generation ago in 1984.

deGrom's season is a study in perseverance. He started the year as an afterthought, we all know that by now. He wasn't Noah Syndergaard. He wasn't Zack Wheeler. He wasn't even Rafael Montero. We knew he was there, though, and that he might surface before too long, perhaps as a swing man out of the bullpen. And when he got called up in May, the bullpen was his place. But fate intervened in Dillon Gee's injury, and suddenly there he was, tossed on the mound for a start against the Yankees. deGrom pitched well, and even chipped in with the first hit by a Mets pitcher all season, but it wasn't enough as the Mets lost the game. Against the Dodgers, deGrom again pitched decently, but got burned by a few Home Runs. That seemed to be the story of his starts. Pitch well, get no run support, take the loss. After a month, he was 0-4 despite not pitching especially badly.

But the tide turned after that. He beat Miami for his first win on June 21st, a sterling effort in which he pitched 7 shutout innings. From there, he took off. By the end of July, after a stretch in which he went 5-1 with an ERA of 1.37 and 49 Strikeouts in 46 innings, he'd evened up his record at 5-5 and lowered his ERA from 4.39 to 2.79 and all of a sudden forcibly interjected his name into the discussion of things like "Future of the Mets starting rotation" and "Rookie of the Year."

Though a shoulder injury knocked him out briefly in August, deGrom continued to ride the wave of success, gaining national notice when he outdueled Jake Peavy and the Giants on August 2nd, and finishing off his campaign with 5 simply dominant outings, in which he beat the Phillies, Rockies and Braves, and took a pair of no-decisions against the Marlins (mainly thanks to poor offense and poor bullpen efforts) where he elevated his status by pitching to a 1.37 ERA and tying a Major League record by striking out the first 8 batters of the game on September 15th.

Add all these things together, and that's how you win a Rookie of the Year award. deGrom boasted all the right variables: an out-of-nowhere emergence, multiple notable outings, a record-tying performance and no clear competition. And now, he's earned the hardware that he so rightfully deserved by becoming the Mets 5th Rookie of the Year, cementing his place as a key member of the Mets future and another name for us to get excited about. It's been 30 years since a Mets Rookie has brought this award home. Players like Wright, Harvey and Wheeler were never afforded a fair shot at it, others like Gregg Jefferies and Jay Payton weren't good enough, but deGrom was the right man at the right time, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more deserving.

Monday, November 3, 2014

This Again?!

In the 2012 season, the 49ers played the Rams twice. Both games went to Overtime. One time, the Rams ended a sloppy, disgusting game by kicking the winning Field Goal with under a minute to play in OT. The other time, the teams played to a sloppy, disgusting Tie Game on a watershed afternoon that saw Colin Kaepernick officially take the reins as starting Quarterback for the 49ers. The 0-1-1 record that the 49ers had against an inferior Rams team could have been ruinous, but they managed to get their act together.

Yesterday, the 49ers played the Rams in a game rather reminiscent of those two particular shit shows. The 49ers, who've been irritatingly inconsistent all season, had perhaps their biggest stinker of the season, blowing an opportunity to at worst tie the game in the closing seconds and losing a head-scratcher of a game 13-10. The game drops their record to a mediocre 4-4, drops them 3 games behind the high-flying Cardinals in the NFC West standings, continues to open up all sorts of questions about where this team is going and really throws their chances for a return to the playoffs in doubt. Colin Kaepernick, who was sacked 8 times behind a patchwork Offensive Line, was in position to punch the ball in for the winning score with under :05 seconds to play, but in a pileup was ruled to have Fumbled the ball away to the Rams. The game wasn't on in New York and I was out most of the day anyway, so by time I got home and knew the result of the game, I was a bit too disgusted to look at a replay right away to figure out what happened. Eventually, I did look at it, but whatever it was was too inconclusive to figure out one way or the other, and besides, what's done is done.

There isn't too much in the way of breaking things down that I can do with a game like this. It reminds me somewhat of the game they played against Carolina at home last year, where they kind of played a slow-moving, frustrating game where things were close all game, but then something weird happened late, the 49ers found themselves behind and ultimately sealed their fate with a late turnover. The 49ers and Rams traded Field Goals in the 1st Quarter and Touchdowns in the 2nd Quarter—a Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin TD was countered by an Austin Davis to Kenny Britt score with seconds remaining in the half—but the second half basically dissolved into an exchange of sacks and punts, and only when a punt was shanked by Andy Lee did the Rams seize an opportunity and kick a Field Goal with 5:30 to play in the game. The teams again traded punts until the 49ers took over with 3:11 to go and only then, after pretty much rolling in neutral all afternoon, did the 49ers offense actually wake up and try to do something. Kaepernick hit Stevie Johnson and Anquan Boldin multiple times for long gains, and a pass interference penalty on Michael Crabtree set the 49ers up inside the 5-yard line with a chance to win. But as has been the 49ers problem in these instances, with 1st and goal to go in a winning situation, somehow the play calling goes south and the 49ers end up standing still. Passes to Crabtree and Frank Gore couldn't finish the deal, and then came Kaepernick's ill-fated sneak, a hero's move by Jim Harbaugh that ultimately ended up biting him in the ass, ending in disaster and leaving the pundits to wonder why he didn't just kick the Field Goal and take his chances in Overtime.

This is the sort of game that can leave you scratching your head for weeks, particularly if the 49ers don't rebound or end up in a situation where they miss the Playoffs by a game. A second straight loss in which Kaepernick took a real beating and couldn't find any kind of a decent rhythm, and in which the running game couldn't get on track is a bad sign going forward. The questions about whether or not this team is beginning to fracture still remains, particularly as they sit at .500 and fully immersed in "season from hell" mode. Every game seems to have been a struggle to this point, and with two road games coming up at New Orleans and at the Giants, it doesn't look like it's going to get any easier anytime soon and, because these things can spiral out of control so quickly, you can't help but wonder just where this season is going right now.