Sunday, January 27, 2008

Quick Hits...

Been a few days since my last post, so here are a few Quick Hits covering the week in sports...

The Stunner Down Under:

No, the stunner I'm talking about is not Novak Djokovic's upset of world number one Roger Federer, but rather the leggy Russian blonde named Maria who captured her third Grand Slam title at the Australian Open without losing a set.

Most people don't know this about me, but I am a big tennis fan. Growing up with a tennis-playing father and older brother it was kind of hard not to be. So I have to say it was refreshing to see the now 20-year-old Maria Sharapova beat the best players in the world on her way to the championship.

After winning her first Grand Slam at Wimbledon at age 17 I was sure that Sharapova would take her place among the game's elite shortly thereafter. But personal troubles and an inability to harness her game caused her to come up short more often than not over the last few years.

This Sharapova however was clearly a different person and a different player as she showed the ability to dominate as she did against world number one Justine Henin, as well as win without her "A" game as she did against Serbian star Jelena Jankovic.

The men's game has long been dogged by the lack of true superstar player/personalities, save of course for Federer and his French Open-foil Rafael Nadal. And as Serena and Venus Williams have battled injury and inconsistency, the once star-studded women's game has started to become just as bland.

That looks like it's about to change however as a focused and renewed Sharapova seems ready to take her game to the next level. Fair or unfair, it's always a good thing for women's sports (and tennis in particular) to have at least one attractive superstar to draw in the casual viewership, and Sharapova's statuesque physique is quite easy on the eyes if I do say so myself.

Personally I'm very excited to see what she can accomplish from here on out as beyond her good looks Sharapova's game has evolved into one of both power and control. It would not shock me if she won at least one more Grand Slam this year and overtook Henin as the best player in the game.

Welcome Back:

This just in, Tiger Woods is pretty good.

As I write this the best player the game has ever seen is taking an eight shot lead onto the first tee of the Buick Invitational to start what should be a victory lap around Torrey Pines. The win will be Woods' fourth straight at the event, a feat he's also accomplished at Bay Hill, the site of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The win will be his 62nd on the PGA Tour and will put him in a tie with Palmer for the fourth most wins all-time.

The fact that he's on his way to another win really isn't the story however. No, the real story is in the idea that some how he's managed to become even more dominant than he was last year, and perhaps more dominant than he's ever been before (the year 2000 included).

I know I'm getting a little ahead of myself here, but anyone who has watched him over the first few days of the Buick and knows anything about golf can see just how far out ahead of the field he is.

It had been reported during golf's off-season that Tiger had become comfortable with his latest round of swing tweaks and had started to devote more of his time to his putting stroke which apparently was not up to par with his own super-human expectations.

The work has clearly paid off this week as it seems every time he touches his Scotty Cameron to his Nike One Platinum the ball has a real chance of going in the hole. Through three rounds he's only hit 47% of the fairways and still he has an eight shot lead.

Think about what he's going to do once he shakes the rust off his game (hahaha, rust) and starts hitting a more customary 60% or so. Over the last month Tiger has stated that he thinks winning the calendar year Grand Slam is possible, as well as topping Byron Nelson's streak of 12 straight PGA Tour wins.

In the past Tiger would have deflected talk of such feats, saying that it would be special if he could do that, but never coming right and saying it could be done. If I were Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, or any of the other best players in the world I would be scared out of my Foot Joys hearing stuff like that from a guy like Tiger.

They say when he's on everyone else is just playing for second place. We should get used to hearing that quite a bit in 2008.

Pitching? Who Needs Pitching?:

During his time as GM for the Minnesota Twins, Terry Ryan was considered one of the best in the game. Ryan built that reputation by building teams that won with a solid mix of pitching and defense, even at times at the expense of offense.

Which is why the first few months of new GM Bill Smith's tenure has been a bit odd to say the least. Regardless of what the homer-ish local media would have you believe, the Twins are quickly going down a path that is leading them further and further away from the success they had in the first half of this decade.

Don't get me wrong, signing former AL MVP Justin Morneau to a contract extension was a solid move and locking up strong-armed right fielder Michael Cuddyer was nice to see as well. But it's been the team's willingness to part with some of the best arms in the game that is troubling to me.

It started with the trade of Matt Garza to the Tampa Bay Rays for outfielder Delmon Young. On the surface it seems like a good trade and it certainly was an even one if you believe Garza is ready to take off as I do.

But with teams like the Tigers, Indians and White Sox all sporting big time offensive lineups it seems to me if you're the Twins you'd want to combat that with top of the line pitching and avoid a slug-fest.

Not having Garza around is one thing, but now the impending trade of Johan Santana and the seeming unwillingness of the organization to lock up closer Joe Nathan, a team once known for it's big time pitching is looking square in the face of a starting rotation of Francisco Liriano (big time injury concern), Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and a Triple-A grad of your choice.

It's not going to matter how good people think the bullpen is going to be with that kind of staff in front of them. Perhaps Liriano can make a full recovery and regain his dominant form, but even then they have nothing but a staff full of #3 starters and worse behind him.

If Smith has any sense at all he'll beg and plead for the Yankees to re-enter the fray as it pertains to Santana in the hopes that he can pry Phil Hughes away from the Bronx Bombers. However recent reports have the Mets as the leading candidate to land the best left-handed starter in the game and their best offer centers around outfield prospects.

Unless Twins ownership decides suddenly in the next year or two to up the payroll and attempt to land a few more top notch offensive talents I fear they will get caught in between so to speak, with neither the offensive firepower nor the pitching prowess to match up with the best teams in the American League or their own division for that matter.

Give Me a Break:

Tom Brady spotted with a boot. Tom Brady spotted with flowers. Tom Brady not at practice. Tom Brady uses a port-o-potty. OK, I made that last one up.

But this is what I hate about the two week layoff between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. All the non-stop non-news generated by the media is so overwhelmingly annoying that I can't believe I'm dedicating space on my blog to even mention it.

You want more compelling Super Sunday action? Think the game has become more about the ads and the halftime show and less about the final score? I know I do and the remedy is clear to me.

Play the game the Sunday following the AFC and NFC Championship games and you accomplish two things. First you avoid the off-field crap news that always dominates the off week, and second you allow the natural momentum of each team to carry over into what should be the biggest game of the year.

Sure there have been some close games following the two week layoff recently, but for my money the last two great Super Bowls were in 1999 and 2001 (Rams vs. Titans and Rams vs. Patriots respectively), and each came the Sunday after the conference championship games.

The year in between those two classic games? The 34-7 drubbing by the Ravens over the Giants that will be remembered more for the Ray Lewis stabbing incident during the week off than the game itself.

As much as I love the college game, even I will admit that the level of play suffers because of the long layoff between the end of the regular season and the bowl games, and the same is true in the NFL. Yeah, the week off helps some players get healthy, but overall the impact can be seen more in the sharpness (or lack thereof) of play from the two teams involved.

I know how much advertising people and network executives love to get the hype machine going, but for those of us who would rather see quality football it's clear that the week off is not a good thing.

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