About this blog:

About This Blog:
I'm Denim. I cover all things sports, in particular Baseball, Football, College Football, & Hockey, especially the Baltimore Orioles, Penn State Nittany Lions, NY Giants, Colorado Avalanche, & Vancouver Canucks.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Battle For 1st Place

A few years ago, if you would have said the battle for 1st place in the American League East would be between the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays, most people would have laughed in your face. But here we are, in the second month of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, and it’s those two teams, not the Yankees and Red Sox, doing just that in a 3-game series starting tonight.
Both teams are 20-12, tied for first place in the East, two games above Toronto, and one game behind Texas for best record in the AL. The big spending Yankees and Red Sox are in 4th and 5th place respectively. After this weekend series in Baltimore, one team will be entrenched at the top. A series sweep would give the winning team a 3-game lead over the other, while a 2-1 series win would only give the victor a single game lead, depending on how Toronto fairs against the Minnesota Twins.

The Tampa Bay Rays were the Cinderella team of the AL East a few years back, and have somehow managed to stay relevant despite having to compete with the free spending Yankees and Red Sox for AL East dominance. They’ve stayed near the top of the standings this season, despite superstar Evan Longoria missing all of May thus far. They caught up to the streaking Orioles thanks to MVP frontrunner Josh Hamilton and AL juggernaut Texas taking 3 of 4 games from the limping O’s the past few nights. The Rays have mostly won on the strength of their pitching staff.       

The surprising Orioles come into the series exhausted after playing 39 innings against Boston in 3 days (13, 9, & 17 innings games) and a 4-game set against the brutal bats of Texas, including last night’s doubleheader (18 innings). This strain has quieted the Orioles bats somewhat, and overextended their pitching staff, resulting in a revolving door of AAA pitchers coming and going the past few days. 
The injury bug has also been biting. Baltimore is without it’s hottest hitter, LF Nolan Reimold (.313, 5hr, 10RBI in 16 games), who is on the DL until 5/16 with a herniated disc in his neck. They are also without their best starting pitcher, Jason Hammel (4-1, 2.09ERA, 38SO in 38.2 innings), who won’t return until Monday due to nagging knee soreness. OF Endy Chavez, who was filling in for Reimold, was put on the DL last night with an oblique strain.

Fortunately, the Orioles are also coming into this important series with something to prove after being mauled by the AL favorite Rangers. The young Baltimore team has gained a lot of confidence so far this season. Veteran Manager Buck Showalter brought a winning/“never quit” attitude to town with him, and it’s really trickled down to his players. For the first time in 14 years, the Orioles are going into each game believing they can win, and keep believing until the final out is recorded, even if they are down on the scoreboard.
Despite only winning 1 of 4 in the Texas series, Baltimore put on a homerun clinic in the 3rd game, making history by homering in their first 3 at bats of the game, and five times total. Had the O’s played Texas at a point in the season where they weren’t so overextended, things might have turned out differently. The Orioles are coming off a series win over the Yankees and series sweeps over Boston and Toronto, and are still atop the standings. This weekend, they hope to continue their dominance over their AL East foes in their first 2012 series with Tampa.

Outside of the Texas series, with League home run leader Josh Hamilton teeing off on everybody, the Orioles pitching has been excellent. They still have the 2nd best team ERA and bullpen ERA behind Texas, and a respectable starting rotation ERA as well. The team’s pitching stats were tainted somewhat by facing the hottest hitting team in baseball 4 games in a row, and by having to send quite a few minor league players to the mound in the series due to the two extra innings games against Boston and the injury to Jason Hammel.
Starters Chen and Hammel continue to dominate, while Hunter and Arrieta are hit or miss, while struggling Brian Matusz will most likely be replaced by Zack Britton in early June. Relievers Johnson, Ayala, Lindstrom, Strop, and O’Day continue to be almost unbeatable, Patton is improving, while Kevin Gregg continues to be shaky at best. Just called up reliever Stu Pomeranz has yet to give up a run this season in 19 Minor League and 4 Major League innings.     
The Orioles have the most homeruns in baseball with 50. Adam Jones leads the way with 9, J.J. Hardy has 8, Matt Wieters has 7, and 4 Orioles are tied with with 5. Late inning heroics and a shutdown bullpen have brought Baltimore to the top of the 2012 standings. Just called up infielder Steve Tolleson made some nice plays last night in his Orioles debut, providing some much needed defensive stability at 3B.

To start the 3-game battle for 1st place, the Rays will send 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson to the mound, coming off his worst start of the season. Hellickson has pitched well against the O’s last year (4-1, 2.23), but did not pitch well at Camden Yards (1-1, 5.11).
The pitching scrambling Orioles will counter with journeyman Dana Eveland making his Orioles debut. Eveland is 3-2 with a 2.21ERA this Season in 6 starts for AAA Norfolk.

These two overachieving teams split their 18 game series last year. This year it actually means something to both clubs. Hopefully it still will come October.
© 2012 Denim McDemus

Monday, May 7, 2012

Baltimore Orioles 1st Month Report

One month into the MLB season, Baltimore has given their fans a lot to cheer about. The surprising Orioles have started the season with a 19-9 record, are in first place in the tough AL East, and have the best record in baseball. They lead the Majors with a .679 winning percentage. They’ve done well at home and away, with an 8-4 record at Camden Yards and an 11-5 mark on the road. They have a 7-2 series record, including series victories over division rivals New York and Boston, and 2 over Toronto. The O’s are 10-5 against AL East opponents. They’ve won 5 games in a row, and 11 of their last 13.
The Orioles have won a lot of close games, including 4 consecutive extra innings wins on the road. The O’s have a 1.50ERA in extra innings, and lead MLB in hits and runs in extra innings. Their tenacity has kept them in almost every game this season, not giving up until their last out of the game. The Orioles have been winning with solid pitching, power hitting, and a confidence that has long eluded this franchise. This promising young and overachieving team reminds me of the 1989 “Why Not?” Orioles.

The Orioles are 2nd in MLB with 41hrs, and 3rd with 54 doubles. They’re 4th in the AL in hits. They have 5 players hitting over .300 (Reimold, Wieters, Jones, Andino, Paulino) and one at .299 (Chris Davis). The lineup is filled with homerun threats: Jones 8, Wieters 7, Hardy 6, Reimold & Davis 5. The entire starting lineup has been contributing. Every night someone else comes through in the clutch, showing a true team effort. Hardy and Reynolds’ bats have finally heated up. Robert Andino has been a pleasant surprise offensively and defensively. Nolan Reimold, when healthy, has finally become a Major League power hitter. The starting lineup is really solidifying:
LF- N. Reimold (DL) .313, 5HRs, 10RBIs
SS- J.J. Hardy .217, 6HRs, 10RBIs
RF- N. Markakis .236, 3HRs, 11RBIs
CF- A. Jones .304, 8HRs, 17RBIs
C- M. Wieters .301, 7HRs, 18RBIs
1B- C. Davis .299, 5HRs, 14 RBIs, 1-0 & 0.00ERA pitching
3B- M. Reynolds .195, 2HRs, 9RBIs
DH- W. Betemit .262, 3HRs, 13RBIs
2B- R. Andino .309, 2HRs, 10RBIs

As great as Baltimore’s starting lineup has been, they’ve received very poor hitting from their bench. They really don’t have anyone to replace Reimold in LF. Veterans Endy Chavez and Nick Johnson have been busts. Rookie Ryan Flaherty is on the team for his defensive versatility, not his anemic bat. Backup catcher Ronnie Paulino has been the one bright spot on the Orioles bench. He only made the Opening Day roster due to an injury to Tayler Teagarden, and Paulino has been pleading his case very well ever since. Third catcher Luis Exposito is only on the team so that Paulino’s hot bat can be used elsewhere in the lineup, such as DH. Exposito will be gone as soon as Reimold returns in 2 weeks.
The Orioles are reportedly in negotiations with former Oriole’s 3B/SS Miguel Tejada, who would add some nice power and defensive versatility to the O’s ineffective bench. Those rumors have also lit a fire under current 3B Mark Reynolds, who has been on a tear the last 3 games. Miggy’s not the player he used to be, but he’d be an immediate improvement to the current bench:  

R. Paulino .300 3RBIs
N. Johnson .128, 5RBIs
E. Chavez .127, 1RBI
R. Flaherty .167, 1RBI
L. Exposito .000 (only 1 AB)

Baltimore has the 2nd lowest team ERA in baseball at 2.78. The O’s starting rotation is 4th in the AL with a 3.56ERA and an 11-7 record. In the offseason, the Orioles traded away their most consistent starter, Jeremy Guthrie. In exchange, they received starter Jason Hammel and late reliever Matt Lindstrom. That controversial trade has paid big time dividends. Hammel has been fantastic, leading the team in wins and having the best ERA in the rotation. Lindstrom has yet to surrender an earned run. Jake Arrieta has pitched much better than his record shows. Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen has been brilliant in his first month in MLB. Tommy Hunter has pitched well in 4 of his 6 starts. Former 1st round draft pick Brian Matusz has been shaky at best, still unable to return to his 2010 form. If he doesn’t soon make the transition from “prospect” to “star”, Baltimore will need a different #5 starter. Fortunately, they have young starting pitcher Zach Britton close to returning from injury, making it do or die time for Matusz.    

J. Arrieta 2-2, 3.52
J. Hammel 4-1, 2.09
T. Hunter 2-1 5.00
W. Chen 2-0, 2.76
B. Matusz 1-3, 4.67

Orioles relievers have MLB’s best bullpen ERA at 1.41 and have an 8-2 record. They’ve given up an MLB lowest 18 runs, only 15 of them earned. Long time setup man Jim Johnson has 8 saves in his new role as closer. Most of the O’s relievers have been completely untouchable, three of them yet to give up a run (Lindstrom, Ayala, Johnson). O’Day and Strop have been near unbeatable too. Patton and Gregg are improving with every appearance, although Gregg eventually needs to be replaced. Even 1B Chris Davis chipped in 2 scoreless innings! The bullpen has been a huge factor in Baltimore’s success, keeping games close so the persistent offense has until the 9th inning to win games.   

M. Lindstrom 0.00ERA (13 shutout innings)
L. Ayala 1-0, 0.00 (15 2/3 shutout innings)
J. Johnson 0.00 (12 2/3 shutout innings), 8SVs
D. O’Day 2-0, 0.64
P. Strop 3-1, 1.59
T. Patton 1-0, 4.26
K. Gregg 0-1 5.19

Defensive struggles and an ineffective bench have been the Orioles only weak spots so far this season. They lead the American League in errors and have 10 at 3B alone. They have the worst fielding percentage in the AL. Baltimore has very poor fielding at 1B, 3B, & LF.
One defensive bright spot is the middle infield duo of 2B Robert Andino and SS J.J. Hardy. That pair have helped the Orioles turn the second most double plays in the Majors.
All Star C Matt Wieters is very hard to run against, throwing out 8 base runners already.

The team has stayed relatively healthy this season, other than multiple injuries to LF Nolan Reimold. He’s on the 15 Day DL and is eligible to return on 5/14.
The O’s had 3 major injuries in Spring Training: Japanese pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada, who was expected to return in May or June, is now out for the season and scheduled for Tommy John surgery on 5/11. Pitching prospect Zach Britton is expected to return in June, and may take a rotation spot from Matusz or Hunter. Backup catcher Taylor Teagarden still has no timetable for returning from lower back stiffness, but may have lost his job to Paulino anyway.
I will put no stake in a Brian Roberts comeback until he proves me wrong. The often-injured 2B only played 59 games in 2010 and 39 in 2011. His days as an everyday MLB player are most likely behind him. Even if Roberts is able to play every day, Robert Andino has earned his spot offensively and defensively. It wouldn’t make sense to waste either of their sure handed gloves at DH, so the most likely scenario would be moving one of them to 3B and DHing poor fielding Mark Reynolds. 

Veteran Manager Buck Showalter has brought an attitude of winning and playing hard till the end to a young team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1997. Jim Presley and Bill Castro have done a great job with an underdog pitching staff. Batting Coach Jim Presley also deserves recognition for the hot bats this young team has had so far. Former Boston coach Demarlo Hale is the only negative, often making poor decisions as 3B Coach.      

On the farm:
Top pitching prospect and 2011 1st rounder Dylan Bundy has given up no runs and struck out 25 in 17 innings at Class A Delmarva, and should be moving up soon. Top position prospect and 2010 1st rounder SS Manny Machado is still getting used to AA pitching at Bowie, but the 19 year old will probably be moved up to AAA Norfolk at some point. Pitcher Jason Berkin has a 1.23ERA and 15 strikeouts in 5 starts for Norfolk. Some other names to keep an eye on are Nick Delmonico, Xavier Avery, Glynn Davis, Robert Bundy, Gabriel Lino, L.J. Hoes, Eduardo Rodriguez, Joe Mahoney, and Tyler Townsend.    

Going forward:
Baltimore has a tough 4 game series against Texas starting tonight. Many people consider the Rangers to be the best team in baseball, but the Orioles actually have a better record. This will be a true test for this young Orioles team, but they’re going in with the confidence of having just beaten perennial contenders New York and Boston. This O’s team does not quit. They play hard with a “refuse to lose” attitude, never conceding, even if they have to play 17 innings to win. A lot of teams will take the Orioles lightly, and maybe that’s in Baltimore’s favor. If they play the rest of the season with the heart and determination they’ve exhibited in the first month, expect the Baltimore Orioles to still be relevant in October for the first time in 14 years.  

©2012 Denim McDemus

Friday, May 4, 2012

“Defunct NHL Teams: How and Why?” pt. 1

The following is the first in a 4 part series on NHL hockey by Black Out Risk guest hockey analyst Chad McGinn:

In the near-century that the NHL has been in existence, 19 teams have skated off the ice never to return. That may seem like a low number in such a long time frame, but 10 of the 19 were in the last 35 years or so. Like any other business, a franchise can fail for a myriad of reasons:

War: (Hockey is not the most important thing.)
The Brooklyn Americans, already struggling financially for many of their 17 seasons, saw a large portion of their active roster go overseas to fight the Nazis.

Fire: (Irony?)
Prior to their eighth game in the NHL's first season the Montreal Wanderers' (who existed in the NHA for 14 fire-free seasons) arena burned down. The 1-5-0 team was left homeless. With a name like the Wanderers one would think that they'd be okay with playing the rest of the schedule on the road. Not so much, as the team folded in 1918.

Global economic crisis: (Can't see the puck when the power gets shut off.)
The Great Depression claimed not only unsuccessful startup teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates (who lasted one more season as the Philadelphia Quakers), but also established clubs such as the Montreal Maroons and Ottawa Senators (who spent one more futile season as the St. Louis Eagles).

Labor unrest: (Quitters never win.)
The franchise that began as the Quebec Athletic Club lasted for one season there before becoming the Hamilton Tigers. The Tigers folded when their players went on strike, 42 years before the formation of the NHLPA.

"Financial struggle": (A Chronology of expansion, absorption, relocation, contraction, failure.)
The basic failure to generate revenue is the primary culprit in the modern era.
The tale of expansion is interwoven with the tale of franchise failure.
When the NHL expanded in 1967, potential television sponsors insisted on two west-coast teams. The Chicago Blackhawks franchise insisted on a team in St. Louis. Two teams in Pennsylvania and one in Minnesota seemed logical. Thus were born the "Class of '67," the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars. The League added two more teams in 1970, both of which seemed like logical hockey spots: the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks.
Throughout both of these expansions, several cities were jilted in their bids to secure NHL franchises, and so two gentlemen by the names of Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson decided to capitalize on that. They formed the World Hockey Association (WHA) as a rival league to put franchises in cities that were not accepted into the NHL and, in some cases, to exist as an alternative in established NHL cities. This prompted the NHL to hastily add two more teams in 1972, essentially to keep the WHA away from large untapped markets. Thus were born the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders.
The WHA lured star players from the NHL with higher salaries, securing stars like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Gerry Cheevers. Even Wayne Gretzky, at the time not old enough to play in the NHL, got his start in the WHA. For one hot minute it was a real rival to the NHL, far beyond the rivalry today posed by the KHL in Russia.
In 1974, perhaps in another attempt to thwart WHA dominance, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts were added. Both leagues battled for a thin dollar for 7 years. The WHA saw numerous clubs fold, relocate and merge in that time, and only 3 of the eventual 30 teams to have a WHA charter existed for the entire 1972-9 run of the league. Four of those teams never even managed to play a single game.
Erstwhile, the NHL wasn't just sitting back and laughing at the misfortunes of their increasingly comedic upstart rival. They had issues of their own. The great idea of having two teams in California turned out to not be so great. The Kings managed to pay the bills, but the Seals did not. Frequently changing arenas and names (at various times being known as the California Seals, Oakland Seals and California Golden Seals), the team eventually left for Ohio and became the Cleveland Barons in 1976. The Barons fared no better, lasting until 1978 when they merged with another struggling expansion team, the Minnesota North Stars. The Barons ceased operations and the North Stars continued on for a while. In the meantime, continued financial failures killed the Kansas City Scouts in 1976, and they relocated to Denver to continue as the Colorado Rockies.
When the WHA finally decided to give up in 1979, they accepted a merger agreement with the NHL. Of the 8 teams to start the last WHA season, the Indianapolis Racers and Houston Aeros packed it in before the season's end. This is significant because the Racers sold (yes, sold) rookie Wayne Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers. The NHL agreed to absorb 4 of the 6 remaining franchises, contingent at the WHA's insistence that the 3 remaining Canadian franchises be included.
A season removed from the Cleveland Barons failure the NHL dissolved the Cincinnati Stingers. Seeing no point to the continued existence of a team in the hockey hotbed of Alabama, the Birmingham Bulls were also dissolved. As such, the Edmonton Oilers (with that Gretzky guy), Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques were welcomed into the NHL for the 1980 season, along with the Hartford (nee New England) Whalers.
All was not right with the hockey world just yet though. Prior to that 1980 season the Atlanta Flames burned their way northwest to Calgary, creating an instant rivalry with their fellow new-arrivals in Edmonton. In 1982 the Rockies' mounting financial struggles caught up with them and they became the New Jersey Devils. For the next 7 seasons things went smoothly. All 20 franchises seemed stable.
The Islanders franchise was coming out of the dynasty years and from 1984-1990 a Canadian club won the Stanley Cup every year. From 1983-1990 an Alberta-based team was involved in the Finals every year. Franchises in Los Angeles, Washington and St. Louis were still, to a degree, considered nontraditional markets. Curiosities, even. Nobody dreamed of hockey in swamps (except New Jersey) or deserts.That all changed on August 9, 1988.
It was unprecedented. Unheard of. Unthinkable. Unreasonable. Impossible.
Where were you when JFK was shot? When Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon? What were you doing when the World Trade Center fell? It was one of those moments. Where were you when Wayne Gretzky was traded...to the Los Angeles Kings?
Nearly a quarter-century after the fact it is hard to relate to the significance of that moment, particularly to Canadian hockey fans.
In any other major sport there is debate over who was the best-ever: Babe Ruth or Ted Williams? Joe Montana or Brett Favre? Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant? In hockey there is only one: The Great One. And he was traded. Not only traded, but traded to a team that many felt no business being in the league. Not only in Edmonton, not only in Alberta, but all across Canada there was a sense of shock and a feeling of betrayal. Ask any Canadian old enough to remember. They'll know where they were at that moment, August 9, 1988. Oilers owner Peter
Pocklington was burned in effigy. The Canadian federal government tried to legally intercede and prevent it. But it happened. Suddenly people in Los Angeles knew that they had a hockey team. That moment helped forge the NHL we know today. (continued in part 2)

©2012 Chad McGinn & Black Out Risk.