EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.– By Sruli Szpigiel
Well, the first weekend of baseball couldn’t have really gone much better than it did for the New York Mets. While there were a few bumps and some cause for concern, there also was plenty to be excited about. It’s still a long season, and five or six games isn’t a great sample size, but things may be looking a little bit better than most may have thought before the season began.
Opening day was pretty exciting. Santana had a really solid performance, an encouraging sign that he might actually be healthy this season coming off a serious injury. Hanson made it difficult, but the bullpen came up real strong. More on them later. The weekend saw the Mets finish the sweep of the Atlanta Braves, a team that fans love to watch lose. In Saturday’s win, three balls left Citi Field, including the first one that was affected by the new walls, and Dickey had a strong start to his campaign.
On Sunday, Jonathon Niese flirted with a no-hitter, going into the seventh inning before giving up a single to Freddie Freeman. The Mets out-battled the Braves 7-5 to finish the sweep and give them a perfect 3-0 start. An interesting piece of history: for the first time in 27 years, and only the third time ever, the Mets were 3-0 while the Yankees were 0-3.
The series opener with the Nationals was a real fun one, with the Mets squeezing out a 4-3 win. Of course Baxter had to trip and fall on the way home, otherwise it wouldn’t have been a Mets win. Gee struggled in the second game of the series yesterday, and the Mets stand at 4-1 going into today’s elite pitching matchup between Santana and Strasburg, a record good enough for first place.
Many of the Mets players started the season real strong. Before getting hurt (see below), David Wright was back to his old self, hitting over .500 with a home run and four RBI’s, a great sign that he can have an All-Star season that we are used to seeing. Santana, as mentioned, had a nice first start, with the hope that he will stay healthy all year. Duda’s two bombs in the Saturday game were great to watch, as he is primed for a breakout year.
It was also nice to see the young guys contributing, with Ruben Tejada’s four-hit game in his first start, and Nieuwenhuis hitting a big homer the other day. Daniel Murphy was the hero in the first Nationals game, with a great diving stop in the top half of the ninth, followed by a walk-off single in the bottom half of a game that last year, the Mets would not have won. But the most intriguing part of the Mets’ strong start is the bullpen.
They have been fantastic, with Frank Francisco going three for three in saves, becoming the first player in franchise history to record three saves in the team’s first three games. Rauch has been as advertised, a shut-down setup man who has been almost perfect in four innings so far. And the middle of the bullpen has been sharp as well, including Ramirez and Byrdak, who seems healthy after an injury scare in spring training.
There are still some things to worry about despite the strong start. Andres Torres’ injury could potentially be harmful, but so far Nieuwenhuis seems to be handling the job nicely. Dillon Gee’s start was less than encouraging as well, giving up four runs through five innings in yesterday’s loss. Jason Bay has gotten off to a slow start, and soon we will have to wonder whether he will ever get back to the player that he used to be.
The biggest reason for concern could be the news that David Wright fractured his right pinky on Monday. Hopefully he will only be out a couple of days, but we will see if he plays this weekend. If this is a long-term injury, then any hope we have will be placed on the DL along with David.
There’s a lot of time left on the season, and we will have to wait and see if we can keep up the hot play, but so far this season looks to be entertaining. Storylines will come and go, and the Mets will win and lose. Will you keep watching? I know I will. Let’s Go Mets!
The top two high school basketball players in the country picked which school they would attend in one night in a 90-minute ESPNU special. Sound familiar? Center Nerlens Noel and wing Shabazz Muhammad made their choices on national television Wednesday night and changed the course of the next college basketball season.
Noel is expected to be one of the top picks in the 2013 NBA draft and chose the most proven man in the business to get him there: Kentucky and head coach John Calipari. Noel is a refined 6-10 big man from just outside Boston and is attending the Tilton prep school in New Hampshire. Noel also had Georgetown and Syracuse as the finalists for his talents.
Noel helps the defending champs reload after losing Anthony Davis, Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague to the NBA. The Wildcats will also bring in top-15 recruits Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin and Calipari will again have a tremendously young and talented roster to defend the national title with. The addition of Noel gives UK ESPN’s top ranked recruiting class for the fourth straight year.
Muhammad decided to head west, choosing UCLA over Kentucky, Duke, UNLV and others. A tremendous athlete, Muhammad is the highest rated recruit to choose UCLA since Kevin Love in 2007.
Muhammad, a small forward from Bishop Gorman high school in Las Vegas, will lead an incredibly talented incoming class for Ben Howland’s Bruins that includes top-five wing Kyle Anderson and top-50 forward Jordan Adams. UCLA will immediately be favored to win a watered down Pac 12 conference and they’ll be a top 15 team.
Muhammad’s decision could have to do with the brand wars. While Kentucky and Duke are sponsored by Nike, UCLA is an Adidas team. Muhammad’s sister, Asia, is on the WTA women’s tennis tour and is sponsored by Adidas. So Muhammad stayed loyal to the brand and chose UCLA.
For the latest in the NBA, including all the popular trending topics of the day, we did another Q&A with our west coast NBA writer Aron Jacobowitz.
1) Boston now has two wins over Miami in April and the Celtics beat Indiana and Philadelphia earlier this week. How dangerous could Boston be come playoff time?
To be overtly frank: Very dangerous. Everyone knows they have the experience factor in their favor. Rajon Rondo has been running a pristine offensive game in every big game since the All star break. He has now, 18 straight games with double-digit assists – the most since John Stockton. Paul Pierce is doing what he has done throughout his career while most people outside of Beantown refuse to take notice or give him the credit he deserves for being one of the best players in the league. Not to mention his clutch factor, which is through the roof.
Now that Jermaine O’Neal is finally out of the picture for the Celts, they move Kevin Garnett to the five and he has thrived. He turned back the clock last night to his MVP season in Minnesota. He hit the impossible shots over the outstretched arms of defenders time and time again. He showed up Chris Bosh in every aspect of the game and proved that Bosh has ways to go to come close to his level of play. I’m not so sure they won’t meet in the Conference Finals…they could beat the Bulls in the second round.
2) Orlando lost to Washington on Tuesday for its sixth loss in eight games. The star player doesn’t want the coach there and Dwight Howard may not want to be there either. Is there any easy way to fix the Magic?
No. There isn’t. They can hope Ryan Andersen comes back healthy soon because they definitely miss him. But even with him they are most likely to be ousted in the first round. Dwight Howard is notorious for imitating coach Stan Van Gundy back in the day and actually pulling it off quite well – it’s clear that the dynamic has changed quite a bit these past two seasons.
The Magic just haven’t been able to surround Howard with the right talent – and it’s obvious why. It’s because Howard cannot be the number one man. He is a guy who needs a superstar two-guard. Just like Shaq did. Just like any big guy does. Shaq won four championships, three with Kobe Bryant, one with Dwyane Wade. Dwight Howard? He has Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson. Otis Smith refused to give Turkoglu his big deal when he was a free agent, and then brought him back two years later and inherited the massive contract he received from Toronto. It goes to show you how many terrible GM’s are out there running multi-million dollar franchises into the ground.
If Dwight Howard thinks he could win in Orlando he’s delusional. If he thinks he can win being the top option, he’s stupid. Bottom line, bottom line: The Magic were lucky to make their one trip to the finals when Turkoglu was still able to make jump shots and fade away three-point shots. Now they have an inept Turkoglu, who is on the shelf with a break in his face, and an immature Dwight Howard. That’s a recipe for disaster. First round and out for Orlando.
3) The Lakers and Spurs meet tonight in San Antonio and they are currently the second and third seeds in the Western Conference. Which team is the biggest threat to Oklahoma City and why?
San Antonio. It’s definitely tough but the Spurs take the edge. The Lakers have incredible length in the middle, yet they never truly take complete advantage of it when Kobe Bryant is healthy. Bryant is very ball dominant and the advantage they have on the inside isn’t utilized enough – Pau Gasol always comes out once or twice during the season and says exactly that.
The Spurs are the deepest team in the league. They have Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard all coming off the bench! Oklahoma City is not as deep as they once were. Without Eric Maynor backing up Russell Westbrook, these playoffs will be a bit harder than last year. Derek Fisher was a very nice pickup, however, Maynor provided the stabilizing PG presence they needed last season.
The Spurs are tremendous defensively and extremely deep. Tony Parker is having his most efficient year at the point guard position, averaging a career high in assists, shooting a career high from the free throw line and, as usual, is getting into the paint at will. Tim Duncan is still efficient even though he can no longer leap more than a few inches off the court. Gregg Popovich has blended their youth and age very nicely and they seem to complement each other.
San Antonio is the only team this season to play with the Thunder and beat them at their own game. They are the only team who can adjust to any style of play and still be effective. That’s coaching. In-game adjustments are becoming somewhat of a rarity these days as most teams need to impose their own will in order to be successful. The Spurs adjust to their opponent and then outplay them in their own game. It’s unreal. I think I would pick the Spurs to represent the West in the Finals this season (barring any major injuries).
Bright, sunny skies enveloped Chavez Ravine for Tuesday’s home opener for the Dodgers on the 50th anniversary of Dodger Stadium. New ownership has ushered in a new era for this legendary franchise as they try to move far away from the past few dark and cloudy seasons dominated by previous owner Frank McCourt.
Another anniversary celebrated on Tuesday was Andre Ethier’s 30th birthday. Just a few years ago it looked like he would be a superstar, but a large dip in power coincided with the turmoil in the owner’s box. On Tuesday, Ethier celebrated his birth and his ballpark with the eventual game-winning home run in the 8th inning of a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh.
“I guess that’s a good birthday present for this stadium, too,” Ethier said after the game.
He and his Dodgers are off to a 4-1 start and the outfielder is off to a .316/.381/.842 start with a pair of home runs after smacking just 11 last season. His power has gone down significantly over the past few seasons and he is a free agent after the 2012 campaign.
If Ethier can build on his fast start, the Dodgers will again have a dangerous offense with Dee Gordon setting the table for Ethier, Matt Kemp and company. And the more confidence Ethier, the city, the team and the hometown fans have with a new ownership and new life, the more dangerous the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise will become.
“Everybody is excited about what’s going on right now, and rightfully so,” Ethier said about the start for himself and the team. “The vibe in this stadium today, that’s an addicting feeling. We had that for several years here, and then it went away, and part of that was how we were playing on the field. It felt good to look up and see that support again.”