Friday, June 30, 2006

Verlander is exceptional

I don't know if Tigers' rookie right-hander Justin Verlander really deserves his reputation as one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Actually, the title as one of the best pitchers in baseball - period - is more apropos. Who has won more games? Nobody in the American League. His ERA of 3.13 is third in the American League. And he has won pitching matchups against the both Cy Young Award winners from last season, Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins and Chris Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals. Beyond the numbers is the talent. The 99 mph fastball. The ability to pitch backwards when necessary. He'll double up on his change up or breaking ball and then bust his 99 mph fastball in on hitters sometimes. Verlander can do this because he has command of all three of his pitches like a veteran. In talking to Tigers officials and coaches last summer for a cover story I did on Verlander and Joel Zumaya for Baseball America, they were amazed at his athleticism. It's why he was abl e to get his pitching mechanics in order so quickly for a taller pitcher with limited college success, and why they don't fall out of sync, which often happens to taller pitchers. He has five pickoffs as a right-hander because his feet are exceptionally quick. I know, he hasn't thrown that many innings before and everyone in this town is knocking on wood that Verlander doesn't come up with some sort of arm ailment. I know, a lot of people are looking at him and wondering if what they are seeing is an illusion. But maybe, just maybe, it isn't. Perhaps this is real, and this kid is really that good and might be baseball's next great pitcher. At the very least, he should be on the All-Star team. Actually, he deserves strong consideration for being named starter. The numbers do not lie.

Random thoughts

- Left-handed hitting infielder Todd Walker told the Chicago Tribune recently the Cubs are looking to trade him. He plays first base and would be an ideal fit for the Tigers. They need a left-handed hitter that makes consistent contact. He's also been a good clutch hitter on contending teams in the past.

- Here's a prediction: Portland's Brandon Roy will be next year's Chris Paul and emerge as the NBA's best rookie. And if Roy doesn't, Minnesota's Randy Foye will. They will be, by far, the two best rookies next season. Yes, better than Charlotte's Adam Morrison.

- I'll be the first to admit I don't know squat about soccer, but from what I can tell, Brazil seems to be head and shoulders above the rest of the field in the World Cup. That team just does everything at a much faster pace and with more precision than other teams.

Verlander is exceptional

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

They built the team, but when will the fans come?

It does seem like people are having difficulty getting used to a contending baseball team. Their excitement is spotty. Yeah, the Tigers drew a sellout crowd Tuesday to see Roger Clemens pitch, but there were less than 25,000 at Comerica Park Monday night. Conversely there were sellouts - or near sellouts - Monday in Boston, Chicago (for the lowly Cubs), Anaheim, St. Louis and New York (for the Yankees). Also, the Twins drew almost as many people (nearly 23,000) for their interleague game with the Dodgers.
It seems as if people have gotten used to coming to games on the weekends when the fireworks shows are fired up, but don’t attend with the same fervor on weeknights. That's disappointing considering the product the Tigers are putting on the field. The Tigers have the best record in Major League Baseball. Yet, they rank 16th in average home attendance per game. This is a tremendous baseball town. We all know it, too. I just wonder when it will start showing at the turnstiles.

Miller impressive

I know Oregon State beat North Carolina in the College World Series, but it was difficult not to come away impressed with North Carolina left-hander Andrew Miller, the Tigers' No. 1 pick in the draft. Sometimes there is concern with a taller pitcher like that (he is 6-foot-6) that their pitching mechanics will fade in and out. It hasn’t mattered with Justin Verlander. And it doesn't appear that it will matter with Miller, who has a fluid motion. The bigger question is whether the Tigers will be able to sign him. My educated guess is they will be, but it will take awhile. This is a kid who is going to ask for the sun, the moon and the sky above. The Tigers will give him a lot, too, but only after cooling their jets for awhile. It’s not always a bad thing to sign a college pitcher late because they pitch so many innings in a relatively short season. Taking the summer off has as many benefits as drawbacks.

Random thoughts

- No, I'm not fed up with all the trade proposals fans have been shooting my way on my radio show on 1270 WXYT, The Sports Station. Some of them are off the wall. Some of them are, frankly, ridiculous. But at least fans are interested in baseball again this town. I find that to be a revelation.

- The best player in the major leagues you might not have heard of is Florida Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla.

- Yeah, I'm looking forward to the Big Network. Then again, I have Directv. FOX, which is running the Big Ten Network, has ownership ties to Directv. That's why it is being put on there. Comcast is the primary rival for Directv, and FOX with its regional sports networks. I’m not sure Comcast is going to pick up a Directv/FOX product all that quickly. That's not real good for all the Comcast subscribers in Oakland County.

Monday, June 26, 2006

White Sox-Tigers rivalry brewing

The good news is that the Tigers have been incredible lately. The bad news is that the Chicago White Sox just won't go away. Even while losing to the Houston Astros Sunday night, the defending world champion White Sox displayed just how impressive they are. Tadahito Iguchi's seven RBI on a three-run homer and a grand slam in the last two innings to force extra innings was unbelievable. That's a great baseball team, and it points out just how good the Tigers have been to manage to stay ahead of the White Sox, who have beaten the Tigers in five of the six meetings between the teams this season, in the American League Central. Yeah, if you take the White Sox out of the equation, the Tigers are 50-20 this season. You get the sense the past can just be thrown out the window, and that the Tigers are going to be in this thing for the long haul. Yes, I still believe their best chance to make the postseason is through the wildcard spot, but I'm starting to get a feeling a dramatic race is brewing between the Tigers and the White Sox. They play 13 more times this season. And those games are going to be exceedingly important and possibly epic.

Random thoughts

- We've heard so much about English soccer star David Beckham that it's kind of cool to see him live up to his considerable reputation during the World Cup. He sure "Bent it Like Beckham" for that goal he scored Sunday.

- The White Sox inadvertently helped the Tigers Sunday night by taking the Astros to 13 innings. Houston visits Comerica Park for three games starting tonight and their bullpen has been depleted. What happened to Astro closer Brad Lidge? He seems like a shell of the pitcher he was last season.

- Still holding your breath waiting for Red Wings general manager Ken Holland to make a significant deal? Me, too. Wonder why he hasn't. Hope it's not because he isn't being aggressive. The Red Wings need to shake up the deck more than a little bit.

- What happened to the National League? The American League is totally dominating interleague play. Also, the American League has won three of the last four World Series - and eight of the last nine World Series games. Oh, and the National League hasn't won the All-Star Game since 1996.

Friday, June 23, 2006

It means more to other countries

At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I have to admit I was almost glad Ghana beat the United States in World Cup soccer Thursday. For one thing, the U.S. team just wasn't that good. It didn't deserve to advance to the next round. For another, soccer is just a blip on the sports screen in this country. In Ghana, it means so much more to people. That's the best part of the World Cup - how much it means to most of the countries involved. It's bigger than the Olympics to most of them. Here, it just rates a passing mention. That is, of course, unless the U.S. squad gets on some sort of roll like in 2002. Even then, it didn’t mean that much. Good for Ghana. Perhaps it will become the Cinderella of this year's tournament.

Random thoughts

- Forget goaltending. The Red Wings biggest need is scoring punch. They score so little during the playoffs, it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on their defense and goalie. There just is no margin for error during the postseason. The Wings' top priority this off season should be a rugged winger, and then a goalie.

- It'll be an event Tuesday when Roger Clemens takes the mound for the Houston Astros against the Tigers at Comerica Park. After his first start of the season Thursday, he talked about the need to back hitters off the plate. Hmmm. That should be interesting, seems he is trying to rent space in the heads of the Tigers' hitters.

- Enough of the Shaquille O'Neal-Dwyane Wade lovefest. It's getting disgusting.

- What's the big deal about Larry Brown being canned by the New York Knicks? Who didn't expect that to happen? He was a horrible fit for the Knick. But the "Drama King" would be a perfect fit in Charlotte. He could make the Bobcats winners. Don't be surprised if that happens, either. And no, it wasn't his "dream job."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Who is the Tigers MVP?

Who is the Tigers MVP?

Everybody knows that if the Manny Ramirez isn't the Boston Red Sox Most Valuable Player, then David Ortiz is. If Derek Jeter isn’t the MVP of the New York Yankees, then it is Alex Rodriguez. With the world champion Chicago White Sox last season, it was more difficult to discern. And so it is with the Tigers this season. Is it Kenny Rogers because of his stellar record and the way his work ethic and experience has benefitted the rest of the pitching staff? Who gets more clutch hits than center fielder Curtis Granderson? What about Magglio Ordonez? He has been the run producer the Tigers had been seeking? Or shortstop Carlos Guillen? Or rookie reliever Joel Zumaya?

I'd probably go with Granderson. He plays a premier position. He bats leadoff. He seems to start or finish more rallies with big hits than any other player. But it is an interesting debate and shows the Tigers depth throughout their roster.

Random Thoughts

- Dwyane Wade is the best player in the NBA. That was proven by his performance throughout the playoffs, but particularly during the Finals. Anybody who does not acknowledge Wade’s greatness has a serious case of sour grapes.

- Phil Mickelson had a chance to grab the brass ring at the U.S. Open and let it get away. He was on the verge of true greatness in his sport and blew it. Now you have to wonder if it will elude him forever. This much is certain: That never would have happened to Tiger Woods. That is the obvious difference between the two. It’s a shame, too, because Tiger needs a true rival. He’s never had his Arnold Palmer or his Lee Trevino or his Tom Watson the way Jack Nicklaus did.

- A clear sign it is the end of the world as I have known it: I was completely compelled by the World Cup soccer match between England and Sweden the other day. Just kidding. But I did watch. Well, at least for awhile. I kept waiting for England’s David Beckham to "bend it.." You know, like in the movie. But he never did.

Friday, June 16, 2006

So Far, So fast

It is difficult to believe the Tigers have already won as many games this season as they did all of 2003. It just shows how far the organization has come in a short period of time. It helps they have drafted well. Former scouting director Greg Smith, now a major league scout for the Tigers, deserves credit for a lot of this. Taking Curtis Granderson in the third round and Joel Zumaya in the 10th round were great picks. So, it has turned out, was selecting Justin Verlander second overall in 2004.. Verlander, although he obviously throws hard, compiled just a 21-18 record in college. He was anything but a slam dunk with the second overall pick. General manager Dave Dombrowski has also made some key trades. Jeremy Bonderman for Jeff Weaver worked out very well for the Tigers. Can you imagine how big that deal would have been if Carlos Pena and Franklyn German had panned out? He also traded for Nate Robertson and signed Kenny Rogers as a free agent. That is the heart of the starting staff right there. And the starting rotation is what has transformed the Tigers more than any other element.

Random thoughts

- Dirk Nowitzki has gone from hero to goat for Dallas in the NBA Finals. His missed free throw near the end of the Game 3 seemed to turn the series Miami'’s way. And he could not buy a basket in Game 4 Thursday.

- It does not seem as if the 2-3-2 format the NBA uses for the Finals is fair to the home team. The series would have a much different tone if it were heading back to Dallas for Game 5.

- Yeah. I will watch the USA vs. Italy World Cup Game. I am trying, honestly, to keep an open mind after years of bashing soccer. Then again, I have to admit, I wonder why. Is it just me, or is soccer really that boring?

- The Tigers are not the only team going to younger players with great success. The Dodgers have rallied behind a lineup that consists of often half rookies to vault into the National League West lead. Outfielder Matt Kemp is a potential superstar.

- Does it make you feel any better knowing the teams that knocked the Pistons and the Red Wings out of the playoffs, the Heat and the Oilers, are doing so well in the finals? No. I'm not surprised. It would have been something, eh, if the Pistons and the Red Wings both made the finals at the same time the Tigers had the best record in the American League. Guess we can only dream.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Come on NBA, enough already

It's tiring how the NBA continues to be so driven by television.

I'm all for not biting the hand that feeds you, but it is utterly ridiculous that there are three days off between Game 2 and Game 3 of the Pistons' series with Cleveland. It hurts the competitive element of the series because neither team needs that much time off, even the Cavaliers, who were involved in a grueling seven-game opening round series with Washington.

These are games, not television shows. Wish the NBA would wise up and start treating them as such.

When does Jimmy Howard become the man?

You have to wonder when the Red Wings will have enough courage to make Jimmy Howard their primary goalie. On his side is the fact that Carolina's Cam Ward has been so dominant during the playoffs. He is just 22 and had little experience before replacing Martin Gerber, who was so brilliant during the regular season, but so awful during two losses to open the playoffs against Montreal. Another factor on Howard's side is how well former Michigan State star Ryan Miller is performing for Buffalo this postseason.

Howard is 22 now and will be 23 during the playoffs next spring.

It looks like Anaheim, San Jose, Carolina and Buffalo will be in the conference finals. None of those teams is using an experienced playoff goalie.

Clippers not Kobe own LA

The Clippers are to the NBA what the Lions are to the NFL. As such, they haven't gotten a lot of credit. They are strong upfront, however. Elton Brand is under the radar, but one of the top handful of players in the league. Bet if you took all the NBA players off their teams and had an open draft, Brand would be selected ahead of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. I like the Clippers chances of beating Phoenix.

It's good to see Central Michigan's Chris Kaman doing so well for the Clippers. Central's basketball fortunes nose-dived after he left, costing coach Jay Smith his job this week.

Knucklehead of the Week

Jose Canseco. Just saw an interview of him trashing Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire on CNBC. Please. The guy is the ultimate hypocrite. He is no better than they are. And when he talks, he's all over the place. It's difficult to understand what he is trying to say. He seems very unintelligent.

This and that

- Should the Lions have signed just one of the two free agent quarterbacks they did, either Jon Kitna or Josh McCown, instead of both? Then maybe they could have gone after Steve McNair.

- Does anybody doubt the Nets-Heat series is headed for seven games? That would be good for the Pistons, who aren't having much problem with the Cavs and should be well-rested for the Eastern Conference finals.

- This should be an interesting series for the Tigers this weekend. Cleveland hasn't been playing that well. Will the Tigers take advantage?

Did the Lions pass on the next great QB?

Speculating on the Lions' draft is like trying to figure out what the cost of gasoline will be in three years.

It falls under the category of, "Who knows?"

It all depends on Matt Leinart, the quarterback from the University of Southern California they passed on with the ninth overall pick.

A year ago, after he won the Heisman Trophy, Leinart was projected as the first overall selection in the draft. He stayed in school, though, dominated at the college-level again, yet somehow slipped in the draft. I hear it was because of a less than impressive pro day workout.

I like the Lions' choice of linebacker Ernie Sims at ninth overall. He is a very aggressive, hard-hitting player. That's assuming he has no problems with concussions, which he did at Florida State. But I still would have taken Leinart.

Why? It's simple: The Lions have had a lot of great linebackers down through the years. They have had a lot of great players at all positions down through the years. Oh, except at quarterback since Bobby Layne was traded in 1958. It's their one longstanding obvious hole, and the biggest reason they consistently flounder.

If Leinart stars in Arizona, Lions fans will rue the day they passed on him - even if Sims becomes a good player. One thing to remember, however - the Cardinals are the only NFL franchise with a consistently worse track record than the Lions. Leinart has even more ghosts to remove in Arizona than he would have had in Detroit.

Another Millen moment

Most foolish statement of the draft: Lions president Matt Millen saying Sims' history of concussions is "not an issue."

Thumbs up for Scott, down for Calhoun

The only Lions' draft choice that was truly questionable was running back Brian Calhoun in the third round. He is not that big nor that fast and the Lions had a lot of needs they could have addressed there, particularly along the offensive line, although they did well in that regard later in the draft. Jonathan Scott from Texas was a solid pick in the fifth round.

Kudos to West Bloomfield's baseball team

The Lakers are on a roll after sweeping a tough Okemos squad in a doubleheader over the weekend. Could West Bloomfield make a run in the state tournament? Stay tuned.

Rogers a great pickup

Kenny Rogers may be 41, but he pitches younger than that because he is in great shape physically, a terrific athlete who fields his position particularly well and relies on finesse with his pitch menu. A lot of people got sticker shock when the Tigers gave Rogers $16 million for two years as a free agent , but he's already got four victories. It's turning out he was a bargain at the price.

The Red Wing that...

...needs to show up the most in Game Six tonight, obviously besides goalie Manny Legace, is Kris Draper. He is the heart and soul of the Red Wings' grit game. Yet, he's been non-existent during their opening-round series against Edmonton.