Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dirtiest Water

Yesterday, I said that the Red Sox might have appeared certain to win the World Series, but that you couldn't hand it to them quite yet.

Now, you can hand it to them.

In a mostly anticlimactic finish, the Red Sox shoved the Cardinals out the Fenway Park door and into the Charles River, bombing St. Louis Sensation Michael Wacha for 6 runs in 3.2 innings and cruised from there with a 6-1 victory to clinch the World Series Championship in front of their home fans who were bouncing off the walls probably since about 4 in the afternoon.

This will end up being remembered as a bit of an uneven World Series. The Cardinals got off the mat after a Game 1 beating and won a pair of thrillers, and the Red Sox responded with a pair of close victories of their own, bringing it back to Fenway Park on Wednesday night for the 6th game. Game 6 of the World Series often seems to be a haven for Baseball's most bizarre moments, and the Cardinals and Red Sox certainly have had their dalliances with such moments. But the Red Sox, who looked shot out of a cannon last night, stopped the Cardinals dead in their tracks before they ever had a chance to make the game interesting. Shane Victorino once again was the showstopper; his 3-run double that clanged halfway up the Green Monster broke the ice and in one fell swoop hung more Earned Runs on Wacha than he'd allowed all October. True, it was only three runs and we've seen much stranger things happened, but if a game ever felt over in the 3rd inning, that was certainly one of those moments.

Given the remainder of the game, that's not much of an arguable point. Stephen Drew led off the 4th with a Home Run, a few batters later Wacha was out of the game and the Red Sox tacked on a couple of more runs and the rest of the game was academic.

Ultimately, you'll be hearing stories focusing on the Red Sox formula of building around chemistry and character as opposed to simply buying the biggest names, and that's certainly proved itself a good means to success. But let's not ignore that these are talented players that the Red Sox bought in. Guys like Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes are all players that are worthy of starting roles. There's plenty of good character guys out there and certainly many of them have come across the radar of the Mets. Hell, Joe McEwing and, more recently, Alex Cora just for a couple of examples, were wonderful clubhouse guys. They were also generally useless as everyday Major League ballplayers.

The point here is that it doesn't always take a complete makeover to bring a team from misery to a Championship. The Red Sox lost over 90 games in 2012 and were worse than the Mets. In 2013, they're World Series Champions. The Mets still stink and who knows what they're going to do this offseason (probably something stupid like deal talented character guy Ike Davis and hand useless loaf Lucas Duda the 1st Baseman's job), but if the 2013 Red Sox have shown us anything, it's that if you look in the right places and bring in legitimately talented players who can play together, anything's possible. You hear me? ANYTHANG'SPOSSABULLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!"

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On The Precipice

Baseball's funny. At the beginning of the season, I predicted the Boston Red Sox would go 76-86 and finish last in the American League East.

The Red Sox now stand one win away from a World Series Championship.

That's not to hand it to them now, because that one win is often tough to get. Red Sox History is dotted with moments when they were one win away and never got it. Recent History shows the St. Louis Cardinals being outs away from losing a World Series before storming back.

But for whatever reason, I don't see a Cardinal Miracle happening this time. Not the way this series has played out. Yet on Sunday morning, I couldn't have been blamed for feeling differently. After Saturday night's sloppy affair that saw the Red Sox come up with a game-saving miracle and a game-losing mistake on the same play, the Cardinals looked every bit like they were going to stop the Sox and their beards dead in their tracks, win all 3 games at home and finish off a quick Series. That seemed to be the Cardinal Mojo, the one I thought belonged to the Dodgers but was really the Cardinals' all along. Think about it. The Red Sox wipe the floor with the Cardinals in the 1st game, but pluck and grit and guile rule the day in Games 2 and 3, with guys you never heard of like Michael Wacha and Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong and it just boggles the mind.

Early in Game 4 Sunday night, it appeared that the same pattern was occurring. Carlos Beltran drove in an early run and Lance Lynn was shutting the Sox down again. John Farrell had to have been sweating; his hook of Clay Buchholz after 4 innings reeked of panic as much as anything else. It didn't work—Mike Carp pinch hit and grounded out—but maybe it did light a fire under the team because one inning later, Jonny Gomes' 3-run Home Run turned the game in their favor and, if the Sox do wrap it up tomorrow night, may stand as the biggest hit in the series. Ultimately, the Sox had to have felt that they stole Game 4. Their bullpen did an outstanding job in finishing out the game; the group of Felix Doubront, Junichi Tazawa, John Lackey (whom Farrell was able to squeeze an inning out of in the 8th) and Koji Uehara (who's clearly emerged as the breakout star of this Postseason), and punctuated it with a bizarre finish of their own when Uehara picked Kolten Wong off 1st Base to finish the game and leave Carlos Beltran standing at home plate.

No theft was involved last night, just the outstanding pitching of Jon Lester and some timely hitting from David Ortiz and David Ross. Lester, who seems to get lost amid the characters dotting the Red Sox roster, came through with his second strong outing in the series, standing toe to toe with Adam Wainwright until Wainwright faltered in the 7th. Lester also gave his bullpen a break, pitching into the 8th and bridging straight to Uehara, who picked up a drama-free 4-out Save.

Even after Boston came back to win the 4th game, conventional logic would have dictated the Cardinals would win Game 5. The Cardinals played exceptionally well at home this season and, of course, it was the last game of the year at home. You'd be hard-pressed to think the Cardinals, who didn't lose a home game in the NLCS, would drop 2 at home in the World Series, but that's what happened. Though before you think it's a demoralizing loss, remember that this is the St. Louis Cardinals we're dealing with and you need to smash them several times in order to kill them.

That being said, having to win two games on the road in front of a Fenway Park crowd that's guaranteed to be whipped into a complete frenzy—particularly given the going rate for tickets to the game—is no easy task. Particularly considering what the Red Sox accomplished just to get to this point.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Smash The Flea

Sunday saw the 49ers travel clear across the Atlantic Ocean to play a football game in London against the Jacksonville Jaguars. No matter the venue, it was clear that the 49ers were superior to the winless Jaguars in all respects, and only a series of catastrophic breakdowns would cause the 49ers to lose the game. This didn't happen. The 49ers went out and smashed the proverbial flea with a sledgehammer, and the end result was a 42-10 49ers rampage.

With the Gnats and Eaglefeathers playing a virtually unwatchable affair on local TV, I was relegated to streaming the game on my phone with KNBR's own Ted Robinson and Eric Davis. The broadcast is less fluffy than the TV call (which featured the wonderful Chris Meyers/Shecky Shenandoah team), and they even played some charming British-style bumpers to lead in and out of commercial breaks. I've mentioned that my luck when streaming games has been somewhat spotty, but that obviously wasn't the case today.

There really wasn't any drama in this game. The 49ers took the opening kickoff and ripped right down the field. Colin Kaepernick hit Bruce Miller (who surprisingly is the 49ers 3rd leading receiver to this point this season) for 43 yards, Frank Gore converted a 4th and 1 and 2 plays later ran through a canyonlike hole that was opened for him by Mike Iupati and Jonathan Goodwin for a 19-yard Touchdown. The next 3 49ers possessions were similarly successful. In succession, Kaepernick ran a read option down the left sideline for a 12-yard score, in a play almost identical to the one he scored on last week in Tennessee, and allowed him to perform his first International "Kaepernicking." Next, Kaepernick moved the 49ers down to the Jacksonville 2 and with the Jaguars selling out on a run, Kap threw over them to Vernon Davis for the score. Finally, Kaepernick took another one in himself on a 9-yard run where Miller and Frank Gore pancaked a few defenders to clear a path. By this point, it was 28-0 and essentially a noncompetitive game.

The Jaguars only particular hope was that they could somehow sustain drives behind Maurice Jones-Drew running and Chad Henne hopefully not making any mistakes. But the 49ers defense barely gave them a chance. Drives for the Jaguars appeared over before they started on multiple occasions, and in one instance, I left the room after the 49ers kicked off and when I came back, the 49ers had the ball again. The Jaguars didn't cross midfield on offense until late in the 2nd Quarter in a drive that culminated in a cosmetic Field Goal.

The Jaguars had a pair of long drives in the 2nd half, both of which ended with the Jaguars failing to convert 4th down opportunities. Their only touchdown happened mostly by accident; a Frank Gore fumble, a play on which he fell before receiving a handoff, gave the Jags a short field and Henne was able to find Mike Brown for the score. Gore responded on the ensuing possession by scoring his 2nd TD of the game and on the following Jacksonville possession, Patrick Willis forced Marcedes Lewis to fumble, and Dan Skuta lived the Linebacker's dream by scooping up the ball and running 47 yards for the game's final Touchdown.

The London games are a rather bizarre setting. I understand why it's done, but it feels somewhat forced. London is a Soccer town and England is a Soccer nation and their interest in American Football is probably limited at best, but then again, the game drew over 85,000 fans and most of them stayed through the end of the game. That said, the crowd appeared to be largely in support of the Jaguars, which baffles me because there appeared to be more Jacksonville fans at Wembley Stadium on Sunday than there are in Jacksonville, Florida (and yet they can't spell the team's name correctly). Who knows. Whatever it is, the NFL didn't exactly send a marquee matchup across the pond, and sure, you don't know how a team will perform when these games are scheduled, but even if the Jaguars weren't 0-7 going into the game, they surely couldn't have been much better than 1-6 or 2-5. The 49ers, at 5-2, were about where you'd expect them to be. The 49ers win was surprising to no one. That they really wiped the Jaguars out at 42-10 is just a testament to a team that's really clicked the last couple of weeks and now goes into their bye on a 5-game winning streak. So, after a week in London (the team traveled directly there following last Sunday's game in Tennessee), the 49ers now get a week off to go home and get over the jet lag before returning to the field on November 10th against the Carolina Panthers.

Monday, October 21, 2013

We're On TV!

Being a 49ers fan in New York can often be frustrating. Rarely do I get the chance to watch them play on TV, unless they play one of the New York teams or are on one of the Nationally televised prime time games. But sometimes, there are odd instances where I happily find that the game is televised here. It usually happens on a day where the Giants or Jets are either on a bye or playing one of the aforementioned Prime Time games themselves. But in most of those cases, the 49ers are bypassed in favor of a game with more "interest," usually involving the Cowboys or Eagles or Broncos or Packers (or, more appropriately, any of the NFL's most masturbatory teams). But sometimes, there are those random weeks where the schedule breaks just right, and certain teams play at certain times, and the 49ers end up being televised in New York. Sunday was one of those days. With the Jets on at 1 and the Gnats playing Monday night, and the Eagles, Cowboys and Packers playing a bit of hopscotch, the 49ers game against the Tennessee Titans ended up being Fox's lone game at 4pm, and thus was televised in New York.

I know the game wasn't televised nationally. Fox usually sends their "A" team, the great Joe Buck and his sidekick Troy Aikman, to the week's marquee matchup. This game featured Fox's "G" team, Chris Meyers and some other weird guy with a deep voice. In fact, I think Chris Meyers intentionally spoke in a voice a few octaves lower than his normal timbre just to fit in. There was also a token disproportionately hot sideline reporter, trying to pull off a pale Cybill Shepherd look. When you're the "G" team, I guess you're just sort of winging it. The broadcast certainly felt that way. Meyers seemed more interested in speaking in his bizarre deep voice, while the color guy kept calling wrong players and making bad jokes and terrible predictions.

This is kind of a long-winded way of saying that the San Francisco 49ers/Tennessee Titans matchup isn't exactly a hotly contested game. The 49ers and Titans, being in different conferences, meet once every 4 years to begin with. They didn't play at all between 1999 and 2005 thanks to realignment, and yesterday was only the 4th time the 49ers have played the Titans at all, since they were the Houston Oilers prior to 1997. The Titans seem to be kind of stuck in the middle of the NFL landscape. Not bad enough to be a punchline, but not quite good enough to be a serious threat. The 49ers, having won 3 in a row, figured to have a relatively easy time of things, and for the most part they did, breaking out to a 24-0 lead en route to a solid 31-17 victory to run their record to 5-2.

It was one of those games where the 49ers were once again slow in getting going on offense, but their defense never allowed the opponent to take advantage of it. A lengthy first drive ended in a Phil Dawson Field Goal, but pinned back at their own goal line on their next possession, the 49ers could only muster a few yards before punting. Colin Kaepernick wasn't playing poorly; in fact, he'd gotten off to a better start in this game than he'd had in several weeks. But it wasn't until the 3rd drive that the 49ers really kicked into gear. Starting at their own 20, Kaepernick spread passes around to Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, and even mixed in a little running of his own. The drive appeared headed for a disappointing end when Kaepernick was intercepted by the notorious assassin Bernard Pollard, but the pick was negated by a penalty on the Titans. Given new life, Kaepernick found himself in the End Zone for the first time this season 3 plays later on a nifty read option rush, where he picked up a block, juked a couple of defenders and raced down the left sideline virtually untouched. He then took a dramatic pause before his first "Kaepernicking" pose of the season.

The 49ers got the ball back quickly, as a Jake Locker pass on the ensuing drive was intercepted by Tramaine Brock. This time, the 49ers raced down the field mostly on the ground, with Kaepernick and Gore sharing the load before Gore punched it in from 1 yard out. This put the 49ers up 17-0 as the game moved to Halftime, with the Titans barely making a dent against the 49ers defense.

The 3rd Quarter was pretty much a continuation of the first two. Gore scored his second TD of the game on the 49ers first possession, which ate up about half the clock in the quarter. The Titans could generate nothing, as the usual suspects, Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Justin Smith et al basically wreaked havoc all afternoon. The Titans didn't even cross the 49ers 45-yard line until Locker hit Nate Washington on a deep bomb at the end of the quarter.

To their credit, the Titans did try to make it interesting. After getting a Field Goal to make the score 24-3, the 49ers, who had moved to a run-heavy attack once they took a big lead, kind of called off the dogs on offense and had begun to put in some backups on defense. The Titans took advantage of this as Locker and Chris Johnson turned a short screen pass into a 66-yard Touchdown. The Titans had an opportunity to get even closer, forcing a punt on the 49ers next possession, however Darius Reynaud, who earlier fair-caught a punt with nobody near him, had the bright idea of not calling a fair catch with Darryl Morris bearing down on him. Reynaud muffed the punt, got his clock cleaned by Morris and the ball ended up getting kicked into the end zone where Kassim Osgood fell on it for a Touchdown. The Titans got an academic late score from old friend Delanie Walker to close out a 31-17 game that probably wasn't as close as the score might lead you to believe.

There was no particular standout performance from anyone in this game. Kaepernick broke out the read-option more, which was good to see, although I have to believe this is one of those things that the 49ers are only going to break out in certain instances. Anquan Boldin had a fine game, making multiple highlight-reel catches, including one in which he basically snatched the ball out of the air with one hand and held it cleanly all the way to the ground, which managed to confuse Chris Meyers. The Special Teams, which is always the least-appreciated unit on the team, continued their usual stellar level of play, particularly out of guys like Anthony Dixon and C.J. Spillman, who continually stifled the hotshot Reynaud from getting any sort of consequential return yardage, in addition to the Osgood TD.

The 49ers have gotten into a good groove, winning 4 consecutive games against 4 teams they should be beating, and the general panic and turmoil surrounding the team after the losses to Seattle and Indy has more or less evaporated and the 49ers have re-proven themselves among the NFL's best teams. Indianapolis has to be considered among this bunch as well, having not only beat the 49ers, but also currently sit as the only team to have beaten Seattle and Denver as well (but the NFL being what it is, they've lost to San Diego), so maybe it's not just them. Next up for the 49ers is a trip to London, where the NFL will be holding its annual Cash Grab International Game against the 0-7 Jacksonville Jaguars. I'm sure this isn't quite what the 49ers had in mind for a road trip, but they went straight from Tennessee to London and are across the pond at the time of this writing, so by time Sunday comes around, they should be well-acclimated. Chris Meyers dropped an offhanded comment at the end of the game yesterday that he'd be making the trip to London as well, so that should speak to how well-regarded these London games are. They're sending one of the league's only winless team (assuming the Gnats don't blow their lead tonight) and the low broadcast team on the totem pole. It seems to me the 49ers may be the only draw to this game, simply because they're showing up.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

This Game's Fun

I'd hemmed and hawed a lot over who to pick in the ALCS if only because it pitted a pair of teams that on paper were quite evenly matched. I had to dig a little deeper to arrive at the decision to pick the Red Sox, if only because they're a team built of real grinders, guys who peck and scrape and battle tooth and nail to the end. The Red Sox went out and proved this to a tee in their 6-game series win over the Tigers. Though the Tigers starting pitching proved every bit as good as they're written up to be, the Sox hitters ground them down and eventually forced tight games into the hands of the Tigers excessively shaky bullpen, and ultimately they found ways to prevail.

It was a different hero every day for the Red Sox, which is generally how the most successful teams do it. David Ortiz, who's made a career out of big hits in October, did it last Sunday night, hitting a spectacular game-tying Grand Slam in the 8th inning that sent Torii Hunter flying into the bullpen and setting the stage for Jarrod Saltalamacchia's winning hit in the 9th. In Detroit, the Sox beat Justin Verlander 1-0 on a Mike Napoli Home Run and in Game 5, they relied on their bullpen to carry home a 4-3 victory.

This set the stage for last night's Game 6, a real Major League ballgame that featured a little bit of everything; great pitching, clutch hitting, controversial plays, serious momentum swings and one huge, memorable moment, which was provided by Shane Victorino. I could tell it was that kind of game when it had hit the 3 hour mark in the top of the 7th inning. By this point, Max Scherzer had done just about everything he could to try to carry his team to a 7th game and a shot for Verlander (or, more appropriately, the exact opposite of the complete bed-shitting Clayton Kershaw did on Friday). His offense had done very little in support of him, save for a 2-run single from Victor Martinez. This was promptly followed by the rarely seen 4-4-2 Double Play, where Prince Fielder completely vapor-locked on an infield ground ball, allowing Pedroia to tag out Martinez and then throw home to get Fielder in a rundown, which he ended by pulling a Lucas Duda and belly-flopping not particularly close to 3rd Base. But, despite all that, the Tigers still had a 2-1 lead.

Unfortunately, Scherzer's weakness is that he's only been conditioned for 7 innings or so of work. Jim Leyland has never nursed him further. Plus the Red Sox, as is their wont, had made him throw an awful lot of pitches, and in pressure situations. So, after he walked Xander Bogaerts in the 7th, he was gone, and the game unraveled for the Tigers from there, culminating with Victorino's Grand Slam that ultimately won the game and sent the Red Sox on to the World Series

I'd mentioned at the beginning of the ALCS that the Red Sox were sort of unlikeable, and that I get why people don't like them. But I don't consider myself one of them. I'm not a great lover of Boston, and maybe the main reason I like the Red Sox is because of the common dislike of a particular team. But I didn't have a hard time pulling for them against Detroit, and I'm certainly going to be pulling for them in the World Series. They have a similar team to the Cardinals, built around unheralded pitching and hitters that bug the hell out of you. Hell, they've even made me admit appreciation for my main man Shane Victorino, who I've spent years trashing because of how many times he got clutch hits or made important plays when he played for Philly. The difference is, I like it a lot more when he's not doing it for the Phillies. When he hits a Grand Slam and pounds his chest around the bases for the Red Sox, it's OK. He's an emotional guy and that's always been his game, and that's absolutely a double-standard because I hate the Phillies.

That should illustrate the difference between these two teams. A friend said to me after Saturday's game ended that "The Cards look like a team of quiet professionals. The Red Sox look like a team of destiny." The Cardinals seem to have taken on the feel of a particular team I don't like very much, and given that I didn't like the Cardinals much to begin with, it makes me like them even less. The Red Sox play the same kind of game, but you can see them enjoying it. I'm sure that if the Cardinals spent so much time bitching and moaning about the Dodgers, someone will chime in about the bunch of ragamuffins on the Red Sox. Maybe. One of the problems these holier-than-thou teams have is an inability to keep their mouths shut. Sometimes it can backfire. It didn't happen to the Cardinals in the NLCS. But the Red Sox have proven they're a better, headier team than the Dodgers. This will be a really interesting World Series to watch. It's probably going to come down to whatever team blinks first on any given night. But I don't think much guesswork is involved when it comes to who I'm picking: Sox in 7.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The No-Fun Bunch

There's no Hex quite like consistency. I totally bought into the Dodgers mojo, and after they took apart the Braves in the NLDS, I really believed they were on their way to the World Series. But I didn't account for the Cardinals, who seemed to have an answer for the Dodgers at every avenue. The Cardinals proved themselves impervious to the Dodgers Hex and really threw it back in their faces, culminating in last night's truly methodical 9-0 bombardment that clinched what feels like the Cardinals' 10th consecutive National League Pennant.

It really couldn't happen to a worse bunch of people. I have no particular love for the Dodgers, but in getting as far as they did, they exhibited a certain amount of joy in doing so. There's nothing inherently wrong with winning and celebrating doing so. Sure, Yasiel Puig may be a bit over the top, but he's 22 and hasn't learned how to have a filter. This has rubbed more than a few teams the wrong way, including the DBacks and the Braves, who seem to feel as though they're the MLB Morality Police, and the Cardinals picked on them again throughout the NLCS. I'm sure, were they playing the Mets, I might have felt differently, but then again, the Mets had their own young, irksome star in Jose Reyes. And the Mets haven't won much of anything since 2006, but that's another story. I watched a majority of the NLCS games, and I didn't see anything particularly over the top about the Dodgers (except perhaps Puig pimping on a ball that didn't go out of the park in Game 3). When they were winning, for example in Game 3, they expressed some emotion, and it was emotion that was probably pretty pent up after two games of the Cardinals frustrating them.

The Cardinals are a bunch of jerks, we all know that. So many years of being led by Innovative Tony LaRussa has poisoned all of them. I didn't like them back when their holier-than-thou "great" fans called the Mets "Pond Scum" back in the 80s, and 2006 rekindled that dislike. They're all hypocrites. Yadier Molina tagged out a runner at the plate in Game 1 and started yelling and pumping his fist like he was Ivan Rodriguez. But the Dodgers celebrate their success, as Puig and Adrian Gonzalez did, and they're a bunch of clowns. Even Vin Scully though the Cardinals were being ridiculous in their criticism of the Dodgers. Prior to Game 6, some Cardinal fans brought in signs mocking Puig and Gonzalez. This clearly got under Puig's skin, because he was seen laughing and posing for photos with the signs, and even signed some autographs. But no, a pox on the Dodgers, and praise for the squeaky-clean Cardinals.

The fact that the Cardinals are now looked at as a model franchise and the picture of success in today's MLB really sickens me, but unfortunately, this is the reality. You can't argue with a team that's bounced back after LaRussa retired and Albert Pujols defected and went to an NLCS the next year and a World Series after that. They went up against a team that had been absolutely rolling for 4 months and took them apart, piece by piece. That thing, that little extra bit of magic that had carried the Dodgers through the second half of the season abandoned them and seemed to shift over to the Cardinals. Carlos Beltran didn't hit much in the NLCS, but every hit he got mattered. Yasiel Puig's golden glove turned to pyrite and his failures in the field became more and more embarrassing and costly. And the no-name Cardinal pitching staff, featuring guys like Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal and 7 guys named Tyler dominated, holding the Dodgers to 13 runs in 6 games. But this is what they do. They get on top and don't let you breathe.

So, the World Series will feature one team that's almost universally reviled by everyone outside their home town. They'll be facing an AL Champion that will boast a tough lineup and good pitching, and also a team that plays with a lot of camaraderie and emotion, which of course the Cardinals will wag their fingers at. Rest assured, I'll be rooting for the Cardinals' opponent come Wednesday night. But lord only knows what kind of bullshit they'll be pulling out of their ass this time around.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Back In Sync

The 49ers won their 3rd game in a row on Sunday, a 32-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals where they certainly didn't play their prettiest game of the year, but once again they made every necessary play to win the game.

After being mostly ineffective over the past two games due to a hamstring injury, Vernon Davis had the kind of statement game he's often capable of having. Davis has often been a lost man in the offense; he didn't quite click with Colin Kaepernick late last season before appearing more prominently in the Playoffs and Super Bowl. This season, he and Kap started out on the same page on Opening Day, but Davis went down with an injury in Week 2, missed week 3 and despite catching Touchdown passes in Weeks 4 and 5, still wasn't quite 100%. Sunday, he looked every bit like the freakish talent he's known to be, running up 180 yards on 8 catches, and scoring twice, once on a 61-yard pass and later on a 35-yard pass.

Davis certainly carried the day for the offense, helping Colin Kaepernick to his best game in several weeks, netting 252 yards in spite of turning the ball over twice. The defense was, as it has been all season, a group effort. Eric Reid and Carlos Rogers intercepted Carson Palmer passes and the defense forced a pair of huge, momentum-turning fumbles in the 2nd half, preventing the very game Arizona Cardinals from getting too close down the stretch.

Colin Kaepernick and the offense seem to just have a 1st Quarter thing, because despite the 2 interceptions setting the 49ers up with great Field Position, they couldn't move the ball and each time settled for Field Goals. This bit them in the ass when Larry Fitzgerald scored a Touchdown on a 75-yard Broken Play, where Fitzgerald does what he usually does and break tackles and make defenders miss. The ensuing 49ers drive appeared destined for points, but Kaepernick's pass for Bruce Miller near the goal line was tipped and intercepted by Yeremiah Bell. Fortunately, Bell was ruled down by contact at the Arizona 1 yard line. This proved important a few plays later when, backed up at their own goal line, Palmer dropped back to pass and was eventually sacked for a rarely-seen Safety by hard-charging Rookie Corey Lemonier, giving the 49ers an incongruous 8-7 lead. Given the ball, the 49ers capitalized on the ensuing drive when Kaepernick hit Davis for a 61-yard Touchdown.

The Cardinals didn't go down easy, though. After Davis' long score, the Cardinals responded with their own 3-play touchdown drive, culminating with Andre Ellington's 15-yard run to make it a 15-14 game. Davis' second score came later in the quarter to extend the 49ers lead to 22-14, and it could have been more had Kap not fumbled while in the midst of a 2-minute drill. Arizona took the ball near midfield and Palmer immediately bombed the ball down to Malcolm Floyd for a Touchdown. Except that Floyd got called for interference, taking the score off the board and sending the game into the half at 22-14.

The 49ers came out of the gate slow in the 2nd half and allowed the Cardinals to rip down the field for a score on their first possession. This time, they scored a Touchdown and attempted a 2-point conversion that would have tied the game. But a gadget play call resulted in an interception, and the 49ers maintained their slim lead. Still unable to get going on Offense, they were forced into a situation where the Defense had to make a big play. The Cardinals were embarking on another methodical drive down the field, converting multiple 3rd downs while slowly chewing up yardage. But as they creeped past the 49ers 30 yard line, the defense finally made that big play, as Patrick Willis, finally back from his groin injury, stripped the ball from Fitzgerald, who subsequently kicked it away, allowing Eric Reid to eventually come up with the ball and stop the Cardinals in their tracks. This kind of took the air out of the Arizona tires, as the 49ers were then able to ram Frank Gore down their throats insistently, working down the field on an 18-play drive that ate up an astonishing 9:32 of game clock and resulted with Kendall Hunter scoring a clinching touchdown and getting body slammed by a clearly frustrated Tyrann Mathieu. Arizona's last-gasp possession also ended in a Fumble, and the 49ers ran off more clock before Phil Dawson kicked an academic Field Goal to cap off a 32-20 victory that could have been hairier than it ended up.

I'm still not convinced that the 49ers are really playing their best. Kaepernick's play continues to be inconsistent, and he's been helped by the fact that the defense has forced 12 turnovers in the past 3 games, allowing him to work with a lot of short fields. He's been dealing with a foot issue that may be limiting his mobility, but for whatever reason that's barely been talked about. Also, Vernon Davis being healthy again has provided him with an additional target, rather than forcing him to focus solely on Anquan Boldin. The other receivers, Quinton Patton, Kyle Williams and Doug Baldwin continue to be mostly ineffective role players. Fortunately, Mario Manningham is just about ready to return, although it still remains to be seen just how effective he will be. I expect that Kaepernick's performances will continue to improve as he gets more weapons to work with, which is important because the 49ers have a few really tough games coming up in November and December. For now, they have a pair of upcoming road games against AFC South opponents, next Sunday in Tennessee and then a trip across the pond to London where they'll meet the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars. That should be interesting.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Other Half of the Deal

I sort of backdoored my way into an NLCS prediction yesterday, although while I said I pick the Dodgers to beat the Cardinals, I didn't say how many games. It's too close to call I suppose. And since I made an impromptu prediction I suppose I have to follow that up by saying a few words about the impending ALCS between the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox, a pair of old school teams built around the power of the big names.

Many Baseball fans tend to dislike the Red Sox, particularly after they won World Series Championships in 2004. It's perfectly reasonable; winning two titles after 86 years of not winning much of anything (and losing in spectacular ways), many frontrunning fans came out of the woodwork and Red Sox Nation sort of exploded into this big, really annoying "thing," sort of like the "thing" that makes me hate teams like the Green Bay Doublechecks, the 0-6 Dancing Victor Cruzs and another team that plays in the northern reaches of New York City, where the fans think their shit don't stink and it's somehow their God-Given right to win every time. That being said, because I'm not living in Boston rooting for another team, and because what the Red Sox did to that New York team in 2004 is, perhaps, one of the greatest things I've ever witnessed in Baseball, I will always have a soft spot for the Red Sox. The Tigers and the Mets have no particular rivalry although had things broken one way or another 7 years ago, maybe that would be different. But their paths never crossed in anything beyond some interleague games here and there and so my feelings towards them are somewhat indifferent, although I like their roster very much.

The Tigers coasted through the season behind the exploits of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, and rode outstanding starting pitching to their 3rd straight Division title. Their offense was good enough to cover up a really suspect bullpen although they kind of tailed off towards the end of the season when Cabrera got hurt. Then, they barely survived the ALDS against Oakland. After Jim Leyland stupidly left Anibal Sanchez out to drown in Game 3, the Tigers appeared headed for a colossal upset. But the series turned on Victor Martinez' Maier-like Home Run late in Game 4, and last night back in Oakland, they laid down the hammer in the name of Justin Verlander to stop the A's in their tracks. The Red Sox kind of bulldozed their way through the AL East and through their Division Series with the Rays. They have the pop in their lineup behind David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, but their greater strength is the fact that the majority of their lineup just grinds pitchers up. Ellsbury, my man Victorino and Dustin Pedroia at the top of the lineup are 3 guys who waste pitches like they mean it and ensure that by the 5th inning of every game a) the Starting Pitcher is totally taxed and b) the game is no less than 2 hours long. This creates problems for Detroit, whose bullpen is not as bad as the 2008 Mets, but perhaps a tick below the 2013 Mets, if that's a good reference point.

I was somewhat torn on who to pick in this series, if only because Detroit can fall back on the "good pitching beats good hitting" adage, and they certainly boast the better starters. Also, the Tigers have more to prove, because they made it through to the World Series last year only to get swept and embarrassed by the Giants. Everything from here on out is Gravy for the Red Sox. They didn't have a Postseason to get embarrassed in last year because they were an embarrassment from Day 1, right on the heels of a catastrophic collapse in 2011. But John Farrell and a few new faces (like my man Victorino) changed the culture and made the Sox winners again. They may not have the pure firepower that the Tigers have, but they're a more complete team, and sometimes the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. I say Sox in 7.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ruining All The Fun

Much like 95% of the nation, I was rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates to knock off the Cardinals in the NLDS. How could anyone not root for a team that had spent 20 years in Baseball Purgatory, suffering through perhaps the worst black hole of mismanagement in Professional Sports History? After enduring a 20-year losing streak, the Pirates were finally back in the playoffs, a young, hungry team with a rabid fan base that pretty much incited Johnny Cueto to crap his pants in the Wildcard Game.

Unfortunately, they ran into the St. Louis Cardinals, perhaps the most irritating, businesslike buzzsaw in the game today. The Cardinals, who served as Killjoy to the Nationals last season, the Rangers 2 years ago, and the Mets for a generation, stopped the Pirates in their tracks. After the Pirates won Game 3 on Sunday, they took the field on Monday with a golden opportunity to stomp out the Cardinals and perhaps shut up everyone who continues to heap praise on their resiliency and character. But, the Cardinals played like the Cardinals, won Game 4 behind rookie Michael Wacha, and then went back to St. Louis, put their ace Adam Wainwright on the hill, sat back and watched as Wainwright mowed the Pirates down, ending their season with a 6-1 victory that everyone hoped wouldn't happen but figured probably would.

My disdain for the Cardinals was rekindled in 2006, but it's been stewing ever since I was a kid and the Cardinals screwed up my childhood by winning multiple pennant races against the Mets. I have since referred to them as a plague, a nuisance and a swarm of moths, or perhaps one of those enemies in a video game that you stomp on repeatedly but it keeps coming back to life. That's what the Cardinals are. I don't dislike them as much as, say, the Braves, or that other team from Northern New York City, but I wish they would just disappear. I wish the Cardinals would just get swallowed up in a hole and go away forever, so we don't have to hear about their storied past, or their recent success, or their innovative managers, or their uniforms, or their great fans or anything else.

However, they're still here and still wreaking havoc in the postseason. They beat the Pirates, so nobody likes them, and now they get to go and face the Dodgefathers. This should be interesting. The Dodgers and their Voodoo Hex vs. the Cardinals that never die. I'm picking the Dodgers to win, not so much because I think they're that much better than the Cardinals, but I just want the Dodgers to win. I don't even like either of these teams, but I guess one of them has to win. Unless they just refuse to get out of each other's way and end up playing a game that lasts forever, which I wouldn't put past either of these teams. So...yeah. That's what I've got for you. Go Dodgefathers.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Voodoo Logic

I've got no particular affection for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but after they wiped the floor with the Mets back in August, I more or less pegged them as this year's team of Destiny. They romped, as I expected, to the NL West title, where they met the Atlanta Braves, a team I never liked, even before they decided they were the arbiters of morality in the Major Leagues. Twice in the last month of the season, they basically took it upon themselves to be Miss Manners and police the behavior of their opponents, pretty much removing any of the joy a ballplayer might derive from playing the game. True, in some instances it may have been justified, but the Braves can just as easily be accused of crossing the line between eye-for-an-eye and acting like a bunch of crybabies.

So, when the Dodgers knocked the Braves out of the Playoffs and really whooped it up afterwards, I have to say I enjoyed it. The Braves have proven themselves a joyless, curmudgeonly bunch that seems to be content to petulantly pick fights to somehow prove that they're the real men in the league, but I could tell all year that they were little more than a Paper Tiger. Against the Dodgefathers, as I've started to refer to them based on their ability to a) win in every way imaginable and b) somehow manage to make their opponent capitulate to them at every crucial moment, the Braves proved unable to keep pace. The Dodgers beat the wildly overrated Kris Medlen in Game 1, and although the Braves won Game 2, the Dodgers blew the Braves' doors off in Game 3 as the series moved to Dodger Stadium and its celebrities and excessively loud music.

Game 4 on Monday Night was more of a nailbiter, but even when the Braves took the lead in the 7th inning, I was pretty sure the Dodgers would come back, and I was almost certain that they would do it against God's Gift to Closing, Craig Kimbrel. That's just how the Dodgers Voodoo works, but there was a little more to it than that. See, nobody ever wants to talk about it, but every time Kimbrel has been put in an important game, he's shit the bed. He did it in the last game of the year in 2011, he did it in the Wildcard game last year, and he did it in the World Baseball Classic. This would have been Kimbrel's chance to get blown up on a big stage, and I hoped it would be spectacular. Unfortunately, he never got a chance to blow the game because his Manager never gave him the chance. Rather than making him man up for a 6-out save, Fredi Manuel Gonzalez brought in David Carpenter and Carpenter surrendered Juan Uribe's truly massive Game Winning Home Run while Kimbrel was left to stand in the bullpen holding his jock.

But whether it was Carpenter or Kimbrel who was victimized, it didn't matter. The Dodgefathers were going to will themselves to win that game last night, it didn't matter how. That's just how this mojo seems to work. We saw the Dodgers do this to the Mets on three consecutive nights in August and it seems like they're up to the same old tricks. Whether it's the Pirates or the Cardinals who show up to face them in the NLCS, they'll probably fall victim to the same hex. It's going to carry the Dodgers all the way to the World Series, and probably to a Championship.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Take It Away!

I guess many around the NFL figured this glitzy, glamorous Sunday Night matchup between the 49ers and Houston Texans was perhaps a Super Bowl preview, since both of these teams figured to be right around the top of their respective divisions. So far, this season hadn't brought overwhelming success to either team; both stood at 2-2 after two solid victories and two perplexing defeats. The Texans were actually sort of reeling, after getting socked in the mouth at home by the wonderful Seahawks, while the 49ers sort of righted their ship 10 days ago in St. Louis. But if the Texans have any sort of championship aspirations, that certainly wasn't on display last night as the 49ers whipped them into submission in a 34-3 rout.

This wasn't exactly a pretty game by the 49ers standards. They struggled on offense for a majority of the game, only sort of establishing a running game with Frank Gore, who finished with 81 yards rushing on the night, and Colin Kaepernick was barely on track, finishing with 6 completions in 15 attempts for only 113 yards. The game was won by the Defense. For the second straight week, NaVorro Bowman stepped up in the absence of Patrick Willis and played out of his mind, and the rest of the unit rallied around him, intercepting 3 passes from the hapless Matt Schaub—one of which was run back for a score—and forcing a 4th turnover on a fumble, creating several short fields for the offense and basically allowing Kaepernick and Company to do the minimum amount necessary to win.

The tone was set 3 plays into the game. Schaub, who's been on a nightmarish streak of throwing interceptions and having them run back for Touchdowns, was victimized on his first pass of the game. His 3rd down out route pass was intended for Andre Johnson, but Tramaine Brock jumped the route, intercepted the pass and walked into the End Zone. From there, the 49ers never looked back as things just spiraled out of control for the Texans. Houston was able to move the ball smartly on their ensuing drive, converting a pair of 3rd downs, but when the drive stalled, their kicker Rich Dullwasp pulled the Field Goal attempt wide left. This was pretty much the story of the Texans night. Either their drives were cut off by turnovers, or their sustained drives ultimately ended short of where they needed to be.

Following the missed Field Goal, the 49ers had one of what was really only two long drives they were able to put together on the night. Behind Gore and Kaepernick spreading the ball around to Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, San Francisco moved efficiently down the field, eventually scoring on a short run by Gore to extend their lead to 14-0. After that, things mostly stalled out for Kaepernick. It gets lost in the grand scheme of things, particularly since the 49ers were on cruise control even in the 2nd quarter, but he's really been a shell of the player we saw last year and in Week 1 this season. The quality of his passes was generally erratic; though he looked good when he was completing passes, he only managed 6 of them, and his incompletions were overthrown or forced, rather than dropped. That being said, because the defense was on such a roll, Kaepernick simply wasn't forced to make any kind of a big play, and the case was pretty similar last week. Still, even when the 49ers raced ahead by miles, you still want to see Kaepernick put forth a little better performance. His best pass of the day was probably his last, after going the entire 2nd and 3rd quarters without a completion, Kaepernick opened the 4th Quarter completing a short pass to Bruce Miller and followed that with a beautiful rainbow to Vernon Davis, who, despite still recovering from a hamstring injury, managed to outrun Ed Reed to the End Zone for a game-icing 64-yard Touchdown.  So, at least he left some kind of a positive taste on what was generally a blah night for him.

If I hadn't mentioned it already, the rest of the game belonged to the Defense. Brock got his 2nd interception on a similar play to his first, jumping in front of a pass intended for Johnson, batting it in the air to himself and running it back deep into Houston territory to set up an Anthony Dixon TD that made it 21-0. Schaub's 3rd interception was equally horrible; after a good-looking drive had gotten the Texans inside the 49ers 30 yard line and Al Michaels talking about the Texans' ability to come back, Schaub tossed a short pass without bothering to account for the presence of lightly-used backup Defensive Tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie, who lived the lineman's dream by dropping back into coverage as a decoy and surprisingly ending up with a football in his hands. This set up Kaepernick's TD to Davis. The 4th turnover was a Fumble late in the 4th Quarter, when, just to rub salt in the wound, Eric Reid held up Ben Tate at the end of the run just long enough for Donte Whitner to come in, pop Tate and strip the ball that was ultimately recovered by Tarell Brock to set up the final 49ers Field Goal.

After a pair of really bad-looking losses, the 49ers clearly appear to have righted their ship. But I don't think it's quite as much "righting the ship" as much as they're not making mistakes and varying their offense more. The Defense, which was just worn down in the two losses, hasn't really been the problem. Kaepernick, after a pair of truly terrible games, hasn't been outstanding in the two wins, he's only done the minimum necessary. Frank Gore has really stepped up, which has been a big boost. But the key is that the 49ers, who had ended up -4 in Turnovers after week 3, are now even. The Defense, which has been such a huge factor in the team's success over the past two seasons, has been forcing turnovers again and generally been stifling, keeping their opponents off the scoreboard and giving the Offense short fields to work with. Houston outgained the 49ers last night 313 yards to 284 and won the time of possession battle, and yet the 49ers ran away with a 31-point victory. That's what forcing turnovers can do. That's what has made the 49ers so successful.

So, after a difficult first 5 weeks that saw the 49ers go 3-2, they now enter what on paper is an easy stretch on the schedule, with games coming up at home against Arizona, and then on the road in Tennessee and in London against the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars. Of course, they still have to go out and play hard and win, but after rolling over the Texans last night, there's a little swagger back in the 49ers step. Now they just have to keep the momentum going.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

2013 Mets: Maybe Someday (Part 2)

Part 2 of the 2013 Mets Report card. Now, the Pitchers, of which the Mets used 29 over the course of the season, topping last year's total by 1.

Jonathon Niese - B-
2013 served as a bit of a regression for Niese, coming off a particularly strong finish to the 2012 season. Niese was given the start on Opening Day perhaps by default, as the only tenured pitcher in the rotation that was healthy at the outset. Niese had a strong outing that day but ultimately pitched rather inconsistently throughout the first half before finding himself on the DL with a rotator cuff injury. Fortunately, this didn't end his season, but his absence created a bit of a void. He returned in August and pitched rather well, going 5-2 down the stretch, including a shutout against Philly, but overall, 143 innings, 1.441 WHIP and an 8-8 record wasn't quite what we were looking for out of a guy who has the potential to be one of the best lefties in the NL when he's going good. The 3.71 ERA and 105 Ks were about in line with the innings, but for a guy whose main issue has been staying healthy and finishing a season, this year was kind of a disappointment.

Dillon Gee - B+
I toyed with giving Gee an A-, but his poor start to the season can't be overlooked. That being said, on May 25th, Gee was 2-6 with a 6.34 ERA and finished up 12-11 with a 3.62 ERA, which underscores just how dramatic his turnaround was. Gee's often been maligned for being, well, pretty boring as a pitcher, but one thing he's always been able to do is eat innings and not kill the Mets. His performance over the second half of the season was brilliant and underscored his value to the team. True, Gee won't be much more than a 4 or 5 starter, but in that role, he's thrived. Additionally, Gee was the only man in the starting rotation who pitched out the entire season, ending up with 32 starts, 199 innings, 1.281 WHIP, 142 strikeouts and 47 walks. Now a year removed from vascular surgery, a healthy, effective Gee really gives the Mets rotation some teeth.

Matt Harvey - A
It's hard to come up with enough superlatives to describe just how good Harvey was this season, but I like to think about it this way: We knew Harvey was good, just based on his 10 starts late in 2012. It stood to reason that he'd build on that in 2013. He certainly did that, but what nobody thought was that he'd make the leap to one of the top 3-4 pitchers in the NL as immediately as he did. Harvey set the tone beginning with his first start of the season, when on a frigid night at Citi Field, he struck out 10 Padres and gave up 1 hit in 7 innings. He only went up from there. Within weeks, he was outdueling Stephen Strasburg, nearly throwing a Perfect Game against the White Sox and starting the All Star Game. His bad outings, which were few and far between, often resembled the best days of lesser pitchers. But more than that, Harvey energized a fan base that was looking for someone to hang their hat on. Harvey's starts routinely became events, like Seaver or Gooden before him. And that's why his elbow injury, which will indeed require Tommy John Surgery and keep him sidelined for all of 2014, is so devastating. The Mets might be able to overcome this, and they might play well without him. But not having him take the ball every 5th day really takes the starch out of the team. Harvey's not only a great pitcher, but you can tell that he was well on his way to being a leader on the team, someone who's going to bring the results, but also inspire better things out of the players around him. His season ended in late August with a 9-5 record that was more a result of poor run support than anything else, plus a 2.27 ERA that was 3rd in the NL and 191 Ks and 31 walks (plus a miniscule WHIP of 0.931) over 178.1 innings, but his injury really took the life out of the Mets down the stretch and undercut what could have been a stronger finish for the team in general. So, he's not going to be around for 2014, and that sucks. The upshot of it is that at least he won't be pitching with the potential for his elbow to go at any moment, and the Mets have plenty of time to plan their season without him.

Zack Wheeler - B+
It's hard not to like what we saw from Wheeler over his 17 starts. Though he didn't burst onto the scene like the comet that was Matt Harvey, Wheeler improved consistently from start to start and by August was really starting to turn into the kind of pitcher he was billed to be. But it's important to remember that Harveys come along only so often and the expectations on Wheeler have to be somewhat realistic. Certainly, the stuff is there and he pitched to a modicum of success as evidenced by his 7-5 record, 3.42 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 100 innings, but there is also room to improve his control and command based on 90 hits and 46 walks. He kind of fizzled out in September, but my feeling is that that was probably due more to his not having pitched out an entire season and simply being tired more than a regression. He's certain to have a good deal of pressure put on him next season with Harvey out; the key for him is to not let that get in his head and just work on being the best pitcher HE can be, and not be Harvey. But I'm looking forward to seeing him build on what were some pretty positive results.

Jeremy Hefner - B-
I give Hefner a B- if only because, much like Dillon Gee, Hefner got off to a particularly lousy start and eventually righted himself. Hefner was 0-5 with an ERA of 5.00 on May 18th, but by the All Star Break, he'd managed to lower his ERA to 3.33 while going 4-1 in the process. Then, of course, he opened up the 2nd half of the season with 4 putrid starts before going down for the season with his own elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Hefner displayed during his hot stretch in June that he's not completely devoid of Major League talent, but what he is is a pitcher that's eminently replaceable. Hefner made the team basically because Santana and Marcum started the season injured and nobody else stepped up well enough to present themselves as a better option. His numbers, 4-8, 4.34 ERA, 99K and 37BB in 132.1 IP included a WHIP of 1.293 that was actually better than Niese or Wheeler, but going forward (particularly since he's going to miss a majority of 2014), I'm hard pressed to believe that the Mets can't come up with a better option at the back of the rotation.

Shaun Marcum - F
Probably the easiest call of the season. Marcum's signing as a Free Agent served as what I believe was the Mets' only signing of a Major League Free Agent during the 12-13 offseason, and will probably rank up there as one of the least-impactful Free Agent signings in team history. Marcum, who'd made a reputation for himself as a serviceable pitcher who could eat innings and win games (13 wins and an ERA in the mid 3s in 2010 and 2011) but with the Mets he did neither. He started the season injured and probably wasn't ever quite right over the course of the season, which featured him routinely taking the mound, looking sweaty and uncomfortable and falling behind 3 or 4 runs. I credit him for taking the mound and pitching several innings in the 20-inning debacle against Miami, but he lost that game, along with several others, starting the year 0-9 before getting hurt again at the All Star Break. 14 games, 12 starts, ended up a putrid 1-10 with a 5.29 ERA, and if you really want to make the poor run support argument, well, every Mets starter had poor run support, and in 78.1 innings had 60 strikeouts, 21 walks and a bad attitude. Show me a Mets fan who will miss him and I will show you someone who needs their head examined.

Carlos Torres - C+
Eminently boring swing man out of the Nelson Figueroa mold who sometimes started, sometimes relieved, sometimes pitched effectively and sometimes got raked over the coals. Pitched better than his career norms would indicate, primarily in a long relief role but had a couple of nice starts. 33 games, 9 starts, 86.1 innings, 3.44 ERA, 1.119 WHIP with 75 Ks and a tidy 19 BB but allowed 15 HRs.

Daisuke Matsuzaka - C
I was almost certain that, after his first 3 starts, giving Matsuzaka an F was too kind, because he proved himself not only incapable of getting Major League hitters out, but because he took an inexcusably long time in doing so. Started out 0-3 with a 10.95 ERA and we were thankful that we'd only have to see him a few more times before we'd be rid of him forever. But something funny happened: Matsuzaka righted himself and his last 4 starts were as good as anybody who pitched for the team this season, at 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA, making him 3-3 with a 4.42 ERA and a 1.241 WHIP in 38.2 innings. I'm still dubious as to whether or not his strong finish was a mirage or not, but he certainly proved that he's not finished, and, maybe, he's worth considering a flyer on if the Mets need an extra starter next season.

Jenrry Mejia - B+
In limited appearances finally started to look like the high-upside prospect we thought he was back when the Minaya regime wasted a year of his development by rushing him to the Majors in 2010. Only pitched in 5 games before a bone spur problem wiped out the remainder of his season but looked very impressive, 27.1 IP resulted in a 2.30 ERA and 1.171 WHIP, a result of only 4 BB allowed while striking out 27. This success combined with the fact that he's still only 23 years old is certainly reason for some excitement and the fact that he's often overlooked as a definite candidate to win a spot in the starting rotation next season is a testament to the pitching dept that the organization has developed.

Aaron Harang - B-
Hey, 26 Ks in 23 IP in his 4 mop-up starts at the end of the season is pretty damn good for a guy the Mets picked off the scrap heap.

Bobby Parnell - A-
Finally given a definitive role in the bullpen seemed to give Parnell a renewed sense of purpose and he responded with his best season to date. Unfortunately, a neck injury cut that season short and it remains to be seen just how effective he'll be when he comes back, but for the first time, I actually saw Parnell use his great stuff to his advantage. It's as though making him the closer lit a fire under his ass and finally start to pitch instead of throw hard. His 5-5 record was more of a by-product of the Mets lousy offense simply not creating an overwhelming amount of save opportunities for him, but he converted 22 of 26 save opportunities and in 49 games and 50 innings pitched to an All Star-Quality 2.16 ERA and 1.000 WHIP with 44 Ks and 12 BB. Having him healthy next season is pretty key because he's the best the Mets have in the Bullpen.

LaTroy Hawkins - A
At the beginning of the season, I was prepared to have LaTroy Hawkins be one of my #1 flogs. But something funny happened: Hawkins pitched really well and managed to become the only member of the bullpen to pitch out the entire season. A trusted veteran presence, Hawkins eventually found himself pressed into the closer's role when Parnell got hurt and excelled there, picking up 13 saves to go with his 3-2 record, 2.93 ERA and a 1.146 WHIP, that included 55 Ks and 10 BB in 70.2 innings. BUT, the caveat here is that Hawkins, at age 40, likely shouldn't be counted on to duplicate that success.

Scott Rice - B
Rice, a 31-year old Rookie, took the opportunity the Mets gave him and ran with it for a majority of the season. In the great tradition of Perpetual Pedro, Scott "Everyday" Rice took the ball in 73 games and pitched effectively, primarily as a lefty specialist but also saw a decent amount of work as a crossover guy. Season ended due to a hernia in August and the bullpen did take a hit from his absence. 51 innings, pitched to a 3.71 ERA, 1.353 WHIP, 4-5 record and 41 Ks.

Scott Atchison - B-
Holds the distinction of being the oldest-looking 37 year old in team history. Missed a good deal of time with multiple nagging injuries that caused him to grouse about on the mound in some odd-looking scenes. Some scattered bad outings kind of uglied up his numbers but started and ended the season reasonably well. 50 games, 45.1 IP, 3-3, 4.37 ERA, 1.257 WHIP, 28 K. Strikes me as the kind of reliever who toils for many years with little regard and then randomly puts together a great season somewhere along the line, but I don't think last year was that year and I'm not sure that year will come with the Mets.

David Aardsma - C+
Former Seattle closer resurfaced with the Mets after a few years battling arm injuries. Throws hard and still has decent stuff but did not pitch to especially good results. Had a few strong outings after being recalled in June, but the Mets attempted to use him as a closer one evening in early August. He pitched poorly that night, blew the save and that kind of sent him into a funk for a while, moving him out of favor as the season wound down. 43 games, 39.2 IP, 4.31 ERA, 1.462 WHIP, 36 K, 19BB and really appeared the shell of the pitcher that racked up 69 Saves in '09 and '10.

Brandon Lyon - F
Lyon had a disastrous season, particularly considering he was supposedly one of the stronger links in the bullpen. Decent start but fizzled out in June with a number of poor outings and was eventually released in early July. 2-2 with a 4.98 ERA, 34.1 innings produced a nasty-looking 1.631 WHIP, 23 Ks, 13 BB and 43 hits.

Gonzalez Germen - C
First to wear #71 in team history. For some reason I was convinced I'd seen him with the Royals at some point but apparently this season was his Rookie year. Effective enough to earn innings over a majority of the second half of the season in a crossover role. 29 games, 34.1 IP, 3.93 ERA, 1.398 WHIP. Good enough to earn a shot next season.

Greg Burke - F
It's a trademark of a bad team to have a really shitty relief pitcher with a weird submarine delivery who can't hold a job on the Major League roster and yet somehow keeps getting recalled and given repeated opportunities to show how terrible he is (Sean Green comes to mind). I knew Greg Burke wasn't going to be good from day 1, and yet we had to be subjected to him 32 times this season and watch him produce a 5.68 ERA and 1.832 WHIP. If he's on the Opening Day roster in 2014, that'll speak volumes about the direction of the team.

Josh Edgin - C-
Showed some promise late in the year last season before getting burned by Ryan Howard a couple of times, and this season was embarrassingly bad early in the season. Demoted in April after posting a 9.64 ERA early in the season. Returned in June to little fanfare and pitched decently enough to lower his ERA down to a respectable 3.77 but then got hurt and missed the rest of the season. Posits as someone who might K more guys but after only netting 20 in 28.1 IP I'm not so sure that's the case. I'll give him a shot next season but I'm not convinced.

Robert Carson - D
Organizational filler-type who appears to have cut a niche for himself as an emergency innings eater but can't really serve another purpose as evidenced by his 8.24 ERA and 1.424 WHIP in 19.2 IP over 14 games. Remains as a lefty specialist without the Pizza and probably will not get any better.

Vic Black - A-
Not quite complete since he only pitched 13 innings and 15 games, but showed a real competitive attitude to go along with a 95+ MPH fastball. 12 strikeouts and 4 walks, plus went 3-0 with 1 Save against his hated Reds. Having him in front of Parnell could really give the Mets bullpen some teeth, and should Parnell not be ready to go next season, he posits as a strong candidate to close games himself.

Pedro Feliciano - C
With the Mets lacking in a dependable lefthanded arm in the bullpen down the stretch, Perpetual Pedro returned to the Mets after 2 years being injured and I believe he pitched in each of final 25 games of the season, showing how little had changed. Feliciano certainly isn't as durable as he used to be, as evidenced by the fact that 25 games pitched equated to 11.1 IP,  a 1.5 WHIP and 3.97 ERA, but it was nice to see him back, if nothing else.

Jeurys Familia - C
I'll give him some credit for coming back from a shoulder injury that was supposed to finish his season. Didn't pitch especially well, in 10.2 innings had a 4.22 ERA and 1.969 WHIP but at age 23 still has some degree of upside. But he's got a lot to prove before I'm comfortable putting him in an important role.

Aaron Laffey - F
His 4 games and 2 starts provided little for anyone to Laffey about, putting up a 7.20 ERA and a Laffeyable 2.100 WHIP in 10 innings before being released.

Collin McHugh - C
McHugh gets a C not for anything he did in 2013, because he was terrible with the Mets, pitching to a 10.29 ERA in 3 games and 2 starts, but because he had a brilliant 8 strikeout ML Debut against the Colorados in 2012, and somehow the Colorados had the idea that he was good enough to basically hand the Mets Eric Young, Jr. in exchange for him.

Frank Francisco - F
Francisco showed up for spring training out of shape and undermotivated and I was surprised to see him resurface in September because I figured he'd Valdespined his way out of town. Pitched to marginal effectiveness in 8 games and picked up 1 save in the final game of the season, which I think was kind of a slap in the face to Hawkins. Still remembered more for throwing a chair than anything he's ever done on the field.

Tim Byrdak - D
Returned from the same arm injury that felled Santana and Chris Young, which was nice, except that he pitched to minimal effectiveness and was put in games at strategic points only to have the strategy backfire in most instances.

Sean Henn
B-b-b-but he was a Yankee Prospect! That means he has to be good!

Anthony Recker
1 IP in a blowout loss to Washington where he gave up a HR to Ian Desmond that hasn't landed yet. Please stick to Catching.

And last, but not least...
Terry Collins - B
The knock on Terry Collins is that he hasn't improved the team in his 3 seasons here. He hasn't made them worse, but they haven't gotten appreciably better, either. Ultimately, though, Collins isn't the guy building the team, and he can't be blamed for not improving the team if he simply hasn't had good enough players to work with. If nothing else, I think it's a credit to Collins for keeping the Mets competitive over portions of his 3 seasons when they were clearly overmatched and to get 74 wins out of a team that some thought would lose over 90 games this season. Mostly, Collins has kept the team together and kept his players supporting him (except for Valdespin who was beyond reproach). Although that may not win games, what it does do is create an atmosphere that players want to be in, and the hope is that if this becomes his reputation, maybe more players will want to come to the Mets and play for him. That being said, if he's got more of a team to work with in 2014, he's really going to have the pressure on him to get results, because Mets fans are tired of 74-88.

Well, this was exhausting. Usually, I close these capsules out with a short summation, but that will have to wait for a day or two.