Friday, September 29, 2006

Are the Tigers Four-Month Wonders?

OK, Kenny Rogers did not pitch well Thursday afternoon against the Blue Jays. It came the day after Nate Robertson did not pitch well against the Blue Jays, either. Justin Verlander reportedly is tired, not so much physically, but mentally. Jeremy Bonderman has pitched a little better lately, but was hardly a rock over the second half of the season. How does Tigers manager Jim Leyland set up his rotation for the playoffs? All of a sudden, none of the choices seems too appealing. This team has provided a lot of excitement this summer. It has been terrific that baseball has come back the way it has in Detroit. But this is also one of the weirdest teams I can ever remember. They are so inconsistent offensively, it is impossible to have any idea when they are going to break loose. The numbers do not lie. The Tigers pitching is obviously excellent, but the pitching is in its own way just as inconsistent as the hitting. Fielding-wise, they make errors at the most inopportune times. I understand how bad the Kansas

City Royals are, and how it is likely the Tigers will pound them like a drum this weekend. I also understand the fickle nature of playoff baseball. That the Tigers may, indeed, go deep into the playoffs. Actually, I have a feeling they will do well in the postseason. It is just sometimes, when I really examine their team, I do not know why. I sit on the fence between thinking the Tigers are overachievers who just happened to get hot for four months, and giving them their due as a talented club with a bright future. They have not played well since July. I knew all about the 1984 Tigers and why they were so good. I knew exactly why the 1987 Tigers won 98 games. This team? Even after 159 games, I have no idea how good it is. The Tigers sterling record suggests one thing. The shabby way they often play another.

Random Thoughts

- I love hockey and cannot wait for the NHL season to open next week. I have a feeling this is the season Henrik Zetterberg establishes himself as the Red Wings next great player.

- I respect Notre Dame and its tradition, but whenever the Fighting Irish have a degree of success, it gets on my nerves. Charlie Weis seems like a nice guy and an excellent coach, but enough already. The Notre Dame head football coach is always overexposed. And lets face it, Notre Dame did not win that football game last Saturday as much as Michigan State lost it.

- It is difficult to feel sorry for someone who squandered more than $300 million. Or for somebody as messed up as Mike Tyson. But I do anyway. I mean he is going on tour to fight four-round exhibition bouts because he is broke. That is pathetic. What is next for the guy? Professional wrestling? Roller derby? "Dancing with the Stars?"

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Are We Good At Anything Anymore?

Every time a basketball team from the United States takes the international stage these days, it gets embarrassed. Correct me if I am wrong, but the U.S. produces the best basketball players in the world, right? So how can that be? Every two years, the American squad is utterly destroyed by the Europeans during the Ryder Cup matches. Correct me if I am wrong, but the United States produces more great golfers than any country in the world, right? So how can that be? Then there was the Winter Olympics. Remember that knucklehead Bode Miller? How about our hockey team? The U.S. soccer team was not very good at the World Cup. The U.S. entry in the first World Baseball Classic got drilled. An American never seems to win the Boston Marathon. . This is more than a coincidence. This is definitely a trend. Baseball? Basketball? Golf? These sports are as American as apple pie. How come we are not better at them?

Random thoughts

- An educated guess: Zach Miner will get the last spot on the Tigers pitching staff for the postseason. He is 100 percent healthy. He fits in a number of different roles. I am not sure if the same can be said for Mike Maroth's health. He probably will not be 100 percent until spring training. Andrew Miller, although obviously talented, does not look ready yet. You have to feel for Maroth if he is not on the Tigers postseason roster. He lost 21 games in 2003 and bounced back strongly. He is the type of athlete that should be admired for his persistence and hard work. If anybody has earned a spot in the postseason, it is Mike Maroth. It would be shame if he does not get one.

- Talent is a terrible thing to waste. Seems like Shaun Rogers wasted his the last weeks. Rogers and Kalimba Edwards hold the key to the Lions defense. And neither is getting it done.

- Michael Hart and Mario Manningham are better players, but Michigan's offensive MVP is quarterback Chad Henne. The Wolverines have enough depth at running back and receiver that they should be able to sustain things reasonably well in case Hart or Manningham were hurt. However, Henne is the Wolverines� only viable option at QB. They cannot afford for him to get injured. It would be a disaster.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Perfect Storm

It happened so fast, it is sometimes difficult to believe. But the Tigers rise to a playoff team did not happen by accident. The nucleus of this club was built through every method possible by general manager Dave Dombrowski. He made trades to acquire Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco and Jeremy Bonderman. Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya and Curtis Granderson were products of the minor league system. Magglio Ordonez, Todd Jones, Ivan Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers were high-priced free agents. He even tapped into the Rule 5 draft for Wilfredo Ledezma and Chris Shelton. The Tigers are an ideal mix of youth and experience. Dombrowski could not have made a better hire for manager than Jim Leyland. This season is the product of a perfect storm brewing. Everything just kind of came together at the same time for the Tigers. Hats off to Dombrowski. He has done a terrific job.

Random Thoughts

- From the Theater of the Absurd, we present the Lions. It was insane how they did not insert Mike Williams into the loss to Green Bay Sunday until the very end when the game was on the line. It was an unfair spot to place Williams in. The Lions treat the kid like garbage.

- Here is a novel idea. Perhaps the United States should send their best amateur players to the Ryder Cup. They could not do worse than Tiger and Phil and the rest of the boys from the PGA Tour. That was awful - even worse than at Oakland Hills two years ago.

- I just have a feeling Michigan State's collapse vs. Notre Dame Saturday night was the beginning of the end for John L. Smith in East Lansing. The Spartans were staring at a nine-win season and a decent bowl game if they had won that game. Now you have to wonder if they are capable of going .500 in Big Ten play.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Just how good Is Magglio?

I was at the Tigers game in Baltimore Thursday and I have to admit to coming away from it a little perplexed about Tigers right fielder Magglio Ordonez.
In his first at bat, he crushed a high line drive down the left field line that hit the foul pole for a home run. It was his fourth home run in four games. After that, though, he did not put good swings on the ball at all - including when he came up flat with the bases loaded and one out during the fifth inning. His numbers are easily the best of any Tigers hitter. Yet, there is no other player that has been a bigger source of frustration for Tiger fans. I have mostly defended Ordonez. I think he is a very good player. But having said that, I do feel he will have to stop fading in and out with his production and become a more steady influence in the middle of the Tigers lineup if they are going to advance deep into the postseason. It's also noticeable he has hit his home runs recently at U.S. Cellular Field and Camden Yards - two of the smaller ball parks in the American League. Ordonez has hit only eight home runs at spacious Comerica Park compared to 16 on the road.

Random thoughts

- Usually I am not much for the rah-rah stuff having much influence on the outcome of a college football game. But I do feel Notre Dame will be motivated by MSU planting a flag at Notre Dame Stadium last season following the Spartans victory. That was a bush league move by the Spartans and Notre Dame has every right to be upset by it, and use it as a motivational tool.

- I know Fernando Rodney's numbers are pretty good, but there does seem to be a major difference between him and Joel Zumaya. I wonder if Jim Leyland will consider bypassing Rodney at times during the postseason and going to Zumaya on back-to-back days.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Athletics or Yankees?

The Tigers odds of making the playoffs are high, but it is still very much in question whether they will get in as the American League Central champs or as a wild card entry. To me, it is imperative the Tigers win the division. If they do, they will likely open the playoffs at home against Oakland. If they are the wild card entry, they will likely open the playoffs on the road in New York. I can see a scenario developing where the Tigers beat Oakland in the opening round, with the Twins beating the Yankees. I like the Tigers chances in a series with Minnesota. They have had some success against the Twins this season, but seemed totally outclassed by the Yankees. Facing Oakland and Minnesota and avoiding the Yankees would definitely provide the Tigers best chance of getting to the World Series. Oakland is formidable, but the Athletics do not bring nearly the same type of thunder in their lineup as the Yankees. I think the Tigers pitchers have a chance to shutdown Oakland's lineup . I think they would struggle with the Yankees' hitters. Also, if the Tigers win the division, it would mean they are not backing into the playoffs. They would have a little momentum their side. Lets face it, the fact their wild card situation is solid has more to do with the apparent demise of the White Sox than their own success.

Random Thoughts

- When the Lions took Mike Williams in the first round of the draft, they made a big public spectacle of it, raising hopes for their ticket buying fans. They are paying him a boatload of money. In his brief appearances during the preseason, he actually played well. The fans deserve an explanation why the Lions are not playing Mike Williams. Rod Marinelli's refusal to answer questions about Williams causes more attention to be focused on the situation than deflecting it away. And it is typical of how the Lions continue to be poorly managed.

- If the Lions cannot beat Green Bay Sunday, who can they beat?

- The college football game I do not want to see: Indiana at Illinois on Oct. 7. I am not sure if either one of those sorry teams could win the MIAA. They are truly an embarrassment to the Big Ten.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Maybe the Twins are just too much

I get it about the Minnesota Twins. How they have the best pitcher in the American League, lefty Johan Santana. I understand perfectly well that Twins first baseman Justin Morneau just might be the most underrated player in the major leagues. I know the Tigers neither have a pitcher the caliber of Santana (who does?) nor a power hitter as capable as Morneau. It is just I still do not feel the Twins are that good. I mean Jason Tyner could not play for Tampa Bay, but he stars for Minnesota? I am still not buying into the concept of Nick Punto. Also, the Twins were brutal early this season. The Tigers got much of their early lead in the American League Central from beating them night-after-night, sometimes by lopsided scores. Yet, every day the Twins keep winning. They lost just one of four games in Cleveland over the weekend - and they nearly won the game they lost. I know Fenway Park is difficult place for road teams, but the Red Sox have faded. I do not see the Twins losing there, either. It means the Tigers have their work cut out in Chicago.

Random thoughts

- OK. Sparty. I admit it. I was wrong about MSU's trip to Pitt. I thought the Spartans were going to lose that game. I was thinking the Spartans are not very good defensively. They played well defensively. As for my contention in Friday's column in the print edition of The Oakland Press that MSU athletics is "wallowing in mediocrity," I still believe that. Winning one game does not change that. Now if the Spartans beat Notre Dame Saturday and, say, win eight or more games this season, it would be different.

- It is amazing just how much better the Saints are by adding quarterback Drew Brees and drafting running back Reggie Bush. Houston was unbelievably unwise to bypass Bush with the first overall pick in the draft. He is a terrific football player.

Friday, September 15, 2006

What Rests at the Feet of Leyland?

I suppose it is just human nature, but the reaction toward Tigers manager Jim Leyland when his team started to slide has, nonetheless, been a curious one. All of a sudden he has gone from utterly brilliant to completely clueless. In my opinion, Leyland has not been at fault for what has happened to the Tigers. While he does sometimes come up with strange batting lineups, I think he is just searching for a combination that will be the key to unlocking the Tigers floundering hitting attack. Curtis Granderson has been killing the Tigers in the leadoff spot. But name a better option? Placido Polanco would have been, but he has been hurt. Leyland has a couple of his key hitters in the middle of the lineup, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez, obviously playing at less than 100 percent because of nagging ailments. Leyland is not a miracle worker. He can only get out of this team what it has to give. There are people who want to blame hitting coach Don Slaught for the Tigers woes, but such criticism is misguided. Swinging at bad pitches is not necessarily a patience-at-the-plate problem as much as it indicates an inability of hitters to recognize pitches. Hitting a baseball at the major league level involves split-second reactions. Most hitters, even major league ones, have to guess. They cannot adjust to a pitch if they do not know what is coming. The best hitters can because they recognize pitches and are able to either speed up or slow down their trigger. That is not something that can be taught. The Tigers have been pitching well. That is not an issue. Leyland has handled his pitching staff well. It is just offensively the Tigers cannot get it going. Slumps, however, do not last forever. They mirror hot streaks in that way. I would be surprised if the Tigers, collectively, continue to slump for the remainder of the season. They will break out of it sooner or later. For their sake, it better be sooner.

Random Thoughts

- QB Rex Grossman played very well for the Bears during their season-opening rout of the Packers. However, the Packers put virtually no pressure on him. I have a feeling the Lions will Sunday, and that it will be a lot closer game than many people think.

- If you get a chance, check out my column on Michigan State in Friday's print edition of The Oakland Press. I am curious to know what you might think. Is it a little too harsh or on target?

- What is the over and under on how many days before Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek misses either a practice session or preseason game because of some sort of injury. I say 10.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Will the Lions Ever Be Normal?

I am sure Roy Williams heart was in the right place Monday when he guaranteed a Lions victory Sunday at Chicago. But it was the last thing the team needed. Too often, the Lions get sidetracked by weirdness. Since the start of the year, the Lions have been busted for violating the league rules on off-season workouts, released the second and third overall picks in recent NFL drafts, flew out to Oakland and returned the same day for a preseason game and had an assistant coach arrested for pulling up to a drive-thru window at Wendy's and ordering a single combo while totally naked. It has to be disheartening for those fans who have bought into Rod Marinelli's disciplined approach. That, and losing the opening game on the final drive. Williams is an elite talent, but he is not an elite player. He should go about his business properly and only try to get in the spotlight for what he accomplishes on the field. He has not done nearly enough in the NFL to spout off like that. Few players have. And it is only more unnecessary distraction heading into a game that figures to be difficult enough for the Lions to win.

Random thoughts

- The Lions signing Az Zahir Hakim points out just how thin they are at the receiving position. He was not exactly known for his leadership qualities or sure hands during his first stint with the Lions.

- The Tigers won Tuesday because of their pitching and defense. Kenny Rogers was brilliant. Can we put to rest any notion he is not a good second half pitcher? If the Tigers do make the postseason, he should be their starter in Game 1.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Have Panic Button, Will Hit It

It does not matter what I say to the typical Tigers fan today. I can point out the Tigers still maintain a two-game lead in the American League Central, and that the Twins would love to be in that position. I can point out how the Tigers schedule down the stretch plays in their favor. I can point out that, with the puzzling exception of Jeremy Bonderman, the Tigers pitching has generally been solid. I can point out that Jim Leyland is a terrific manager, who has been through just about any crisis a manager will encounter. None of it matters because the typical Tigers fan has already hit the panic button a hundred times over the weekend. Friday night, they were giddy when the Tigers held a five-game lead. Sunday night, they were desperate after the lead shrunk to two. Do I still think the Tigers will win the division? Yes. The worm can turn quickly during a pennant race. As quickly as the worm turned on the Tigers this weekend, it can turn on the Twins this week. The Tigers should find playing at home and the pitching of the Rangers and the Orioles to be a little more to their liking. The Twins schedule is more difficult. Oakland has been hotter than any team in baseball lately. The Indians in Cleveland are no pushover. This week sets up well for the Tigers. So does the final nine games, six against Kansas City - including the final three at home. Is it disappointing the Tigers have let a 10-game lead slide away like this? Absolutely. But they have not lost anything. Not yet anyway. And I am not sure they ultimately will.

Random Thoughts

- After seeing Michigan State struggle so against Idaho and Eastern Michigan, I do not see how the Spartans can beat Pittsburgh on the road this week. Pitt is not that good, but the Spartans defense just allows too many big plays.

- Can there be a greater example of how valuable it is to have a veteran, star quarterback than Ohio State's victory over Texas Saturday night? Those two teams are actually pretty even except at one position - QB. Troy Smith was that much better than Colt McCoy - and so subsequently were the Buckeyes than the Longhorns.

- Watch out alert: The Baltimore Ravens and Steve McNair are the perfect match. Beating Tampa Bay like that on the road could be a sign of things to come for the Ravens with McNair under center. He is a vastly underrated player.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Addition by Subtraction

The Tigers were playing incredibly well when Dmitri Young rejoined the team. Then they played mediocre baseball for an extended period. Young was given his unconditional release and the Tigers immediately won a huge game Thursday night at Minnesota. A coincidence? I am not so sure. I do not think it is a case of his teammates necessarily disliking Young, but it did seem there was a level of discomfort about having him around. He provided no leadership at all in 2005 when the season went south, and he seemed to have become one of those ball players who was always acting like he was big-time. That same undercurrent remained. It did not fit. At his best, Young was a really solid hitter. But he was never a star. He has never hit 30 home runs in a season nor knocked in 90 runs. Yet, he acted as if he was on par with David Ortiz or something. Money changes players sometimes. When he got his big contract from the Tigers, Young did not respond well to it. I think the Tigers are a lot be tter off without him. Young came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the Tigers in the past instead of how promising this season is, and how bright their future may be.

Random Thoughts

- You have to give the Steelers credit. They play football the way it is meant to be played. Their offense is well conceived, but is not based on gimmicks. And are they ever tough defensively.

- For some reason, I have come to dislike the blue turf at Boise State. It just does not seem like football played on that stuff. I am also suspicious of college football teams such as Boise State who are great at home and very mediocre on the road.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What's with Bonderman?

There are a number of excuses that could have been made for Jeremy Bonderman Tuesday. It started raining. The fielding behind him was not good. The Mariners did not hit the ball hard, but a few balls found holes anyway. None of them fit, however, because not holding a lead has become the norm for Bonderman. He is not delivering when he is needed most by his team. Bonderman has not emerged as many - including myself - thought he would as the Tigers� ace. And it could be costly to the Tigers in the long run.

Random thoughts

- There is no excuse for Magglio Ordonez not running harder to second base on the key play during the eighth inning Tuesday. He looked back, and should not have. It was a bad play because it represented a lack of hustle. He should have gone all out even if it appeared initially as if no one was covering second base.

- Andrew Miller took the loss for the Tigers Tuesday, but he threw well. It would not surprise me if he plays a relatively prominent role for the Tigers down the stretch.

- I find Ichiro Suzuki to be a fascinating and fabulous player. He is incredibly graceful and does everything well. I know he did much of his best work early in his career while playing in his native Japan, but he is, in my opinion, a Hall of Fame player. I will definitely put him on my ballot.

- I wonder if Ryan Howard is the product of a tremendous left-handed power stroke, or more the creation of a too-small ball park in Philadelphia. Barry Bonds, at his peak a few years ago, would have hit 90 home runs playing his home games in that band box. That thing belongs in Williamsport, not Philly.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Consider This: Jon Kitna is Your Quarterback

Ever since the Lions traded Bobby Layne in 1958, they have been looking for a quarterback. It seems odd they never seem to find one. It does not matter if they draft quarterbacks in the first round such as Chuck Long, Andre Ware and Joey Harrington, or sign a free agent such as Scott Mitchell. It never quite works out. Their current quarterback, free agent Jon Kitna, has been more of a backup than a starter throughout his career. When he has started, Kinta has compiled a losing record. He is well on the other side of 30, so there is not a lot of potential for growth. At first, I was OK with Kitna as the Lions’ QB. There was so much talk coming out of Allen Park about his grasp of Mike Martz’s offense. But after seeing him perform during the preseason, it did not look that way. Oh, and his fastball is more like that of Tim Wakefield than Joel Zumaya. An NFL team can win with a QB such as Kitna, but it must have a strong running attack and an exceptional defense. It does not appear as if the Lions have either. It is just another factor that kind of makes you feel a little uncomfortable about the coming season.
Random Thoughts
- You have to love the approach of the Michigan defense during the Wolverines season-opening victory over Vanderbilt. Under new defensive coordinator Ron English, they were so much more in attack mode than they have been in the past. Michigan recruits as well as any program in the nation. It is good they are finally turning their athletes loose on defense.
- Even though Michigan State was not impressive during its opening win over Idaho, the Spartans’ secondary looks much improved..Otis Wiley and Nemo Warrick were particularly impressive.
- For those of us who just want Barry Bonds to go away and leave the all-time home run record to Henry Aaron, the way Bonds is clubbing home runs lately is bad news. It will likely present Bonds with the idea of returning next season. That, in my opinion, would be bad for baseball.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Rod Not So Hot So Far

I have tried to be fair and not jump to any conclusions about the Lions new coaching regime. I have tried, honestly, to put the fact that Matt Millen still lurks in the background out of my mind and consider Rod Marinelli separately. But this preseason did not go well for the Lions new coach. There have been a number of red flags rising that indicate Marinelli is in so far over his head, he is going to need a snorkel soon just to breathe, and that this is going to be a long season. None more than the way first-round draft choice receivers Charles Rogers and Mike Williams have been handled. It has been absurd. Rogers said following the Lions final preseason that he is gone. There is no reason to believe he will not be cut based on the fact he played little Thursday vs. Buffalo and caught just one pass for three yards. The rhetoric from Marinelli about practice is getting old. He had a chance to evaluate Rogers under game conditions and essentially passed. It has been the same for Williams, who will likely make the team because of his salary cap status, but not play much. All I know, though, is that Rogers has made plays when he has been healthy and on the field. And that Williams also did during the first two preseason games. It is almost as if this coaching staff did not want to play these guys for fear they would show up well in the preseason games. Instead, Lions fans are going to be stuck with a very marginal receiving corps beyond Roy Williams, who will constantly double-teammed. I have heard the phrase "trophy cut" used for releasing Rogers. If Marinelli has to do that in order to gain the respect of his players, he is not much of a coach. This is a coach who equated a bus trip from Tampa to Jacksonville with a flight from Detroit to Oakland. One not smart enough to practice his team according to the NFL rules during the off season and dumb enough to look talent in the face and turn his back to it under the guise of some message. Yeah, it is too early to rush to judgement on Marinelli. The regular season is what really counts. I just wish he would stop sending all these messages. With each passing one, it gets worse for anybody who wants to believe in him and the Lions.

Random thoughts

- I know you probably do not believe this based on the way the Tigers have been playing lately, but they are actually in pretty good shape coming home from their road trip. The Tigers did not thrive, but they did survive. The schedule is much better for them the remainder of the season.

- If Jeremy Bonderman does not start pitching better - and soon - the Tigers will not make the playoffs.

- I am starting to think the Twins, not the White Sox, are the real threat to the Tigers. The four games the Tigers have coming up in Minnesota will be quite a test.