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Sunday, December 8

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Cubs in Five

At Least There's the Bullpen
by Jeff Webber

One: Pagan Injury Leads to Unholy Dilemma
Angel Pagan is hurt and now suddenly, Dusty Baker is talking about promoting Felix Pie to the big leagues? Where is the real Dusty Baker and how exactly did this pod person come to take his place managing a professional sports franchise? Time was, the lure of 72 vestal virgins awaiting him in paradise wasn't enough to make Dusty give a kid a shot at an everyday job, but now a minor early injury season to a fifth outfielder is enough to make him consider promoting a 21-year-old with less than a dozen AAA games under his belt? If I had just finished scrubbing the taint off my hands from the last ruined prospect shipped out of town, a guy who fell apart in the bigs because his natural skills couldn't overcome his problems with plate discipline and the deficits in his skillset that came from being rushed to the majors at 22 years old... if that was me, I don't think I would even consider cutting short my 21-year-old top prospect's AAA development short at 10 games to stash him on the major league bench as a spare OF.

Two: A Is for Aardsma
Thankfully, Pagan's roster spot went not to Pie, but to the first name alphabetically from the Cubs prospect Rolodex, David Aardsma. Once seen as a future power closer in the Troy Percival mold, Aardsma had mysteriously lost both his velocity and his knuckle curve by the time the Cubs picked him up as part of the Please Take the Bloated Corpse of Latroy Hawkins Off Our Hands Trade of 2005™. This year, he's found his way back to the 'pen, looking good in a small sample size, with 11 K, 2 hits, 0 BB, and no runs in 7 innings. He won't get more than a few games to show he's gotten it together before the Cubs hack the pitching staff back down to 11, but he could surprise.

Three: How to Predict Imminent Doom from a Basic Stat Line, Lesson 1
Ronny Cedeno looks great so far, right? .364 batting average? Awesome. Five doubles? Terrific. .523 slugging percentage? Outstanding. Thing is, if you look past those shiny numbers, there are signs Cedeno is, much as we might love him, still a rookie with a great deal to learn. For one, did you notice how many walks Lil' Ronny Had drawn to go with his 16 hits? That would be zero. And exactly how long do you think a kid hitting .364 but constitutionally incapable of drawing a walk is going to keep seeing pitches inside the zone? Not long, friends. And those three throwing errors he has on plays to first base pretty well scream: ROOK! Cedeno's a talented kid with a bright future, but a hard look at his numbers so far seems to show he's got some serious ups and downs ahead of him this year.

Four: More Good and Bad Signs Amongst Early Season Stats (Bad News First)
Reliever Scott Eyre has racked up five strikeouts in only 6 and 2/3 innings... and five walks. Carlos Zambrano has walked 12 in just over 16 innings. Glendon Rusch has given up seven homers in just his first 16 innings. (So, um, is Angel Guzman ready yet? 'Cause a slot is opening up fast...) And now good news... Matt Murton has already drawn five walks, tied with Aramis Ramirez for second on the team. Michael Barret continues to rack up RBIs, with 14 so far, fourth-most in the league. Righthanded setup arms Ryan Dempster, Scott Williamson, Bobby Howry and Michael Wuertz have combined for an impressive 22 strikeouts in only 22 and 2/3 innings.

Five: Kerry Wood on the Road to Recovery!
Kerry Wood rejoins the team Monday in LA to throw in a bullpen session. No word yet on whether he's lined up for a minor league rehab gig, but all signs are that Kerry Wood is feeling great and ready to recapture his ace-like form to lead the Cubs to victory in 2006! ...Yeah, and I'm a Chinese jet pilot.

Sox in Five

Back on Top
by Steve Gozdecki

One: From Worst to First
This time last week, our Sox were sitting on a disappointing 2-4 record and we were bemoaning the fact that this team wouldn't lead the division from pillar to post again this year. After shutting out the hapless Royals last night, the Sox record now stands at 8-5, tied with Cleveland for the AL Central lead. It's shaping up to be a dogfight between us and the boys from the Jake, who face the likes of Baltimore, Kansas City, Boston and Texas the rest of the month while we host the Royals and Twins before heading out west to face Seattle and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Advantage, Cleveland — and they host the Sox five times in May.

Two: Cryin' About Brian
Since a solid 2-for-4 performance on Opening Night, rookie centerfielder Brian Anderson has been much more miss than hit offense-wise, batting .071 over the two weeks since then and earning himself a spot on the bench over the weekend. While history is rife with tales of Chicago superstars like Ryne Sandberg and Robin Ventura who started slow at the plate in their first full seasons, there are also thousands of hitters who have been forgotten after getting off to crummy starts and being banished to the minors. While no one projects Anderson as a future Hall of Famer, here's hoping the time away and his hit last night set him on course to climb above the Mendoza line by week's end.

Three: Everybody Hates Chris
A recent web poll conducted by WMVP AM morning guys Silvy and Carmen found that as much as Chicago loves the Hawk and DJ (and tolerates the Cub broadcast guys), the new Sox radio team of Ed Farmer and Chris Singleton isn't capturing many hearts. But while Singleton's melodramatic, Shatner-esque pauses and bizarre pronunciation of the word "groin" (it somehow comes out as "Gra-hoyne," which may or may not be the name of one of the dwarves Bilbo cavorts with in The Hobbit) certainly grate, the real fly in the ointment is the increased role of Farmer, newly elevated to the lead position on the broadcast. Farmer — who was tolerable as the color guy when he took up a quarter of the airtime while departed radio ace John Rooney handled the play-by-play — is a cranky, irritable irritant, quick to take affront at nearly every aspect of today's game, from the weather to the umpires to the bats and balls themselves. Worse still, the red ass is downright boorish in his on-air treatment of his rookie broadcast partner, "joking" about things in a passive-aggressive manner that suggests that he doesn't find his partner's inexperience and ineptitude one bit amusing or tolerable. While the potential for a pairing like this — two former players, one a hitter and one a pitcher, who played nearly two decades apart — looks good on paper, the execution has been poor so far and doesn't seem all that promising. I won't be surprised if Sox radio broadcasts show a decline in the ratings compared to last year; here's hoping the powers that be don't excuse them away as a product of the shift from AM 1000 to 670, but a reflection of the charmless nature of this pair. Those of you looking for an alternative may want to check out mlb.com's very reasonably priced Gameday Audio Internet package, which allows you to listen to any game — including the feed from the Sox's opponent — either live or in archived format.

Four: April Skies
Ah, Easter Sunday. More than three hours to play four and a half innings of White Sox baseball, with the game ultimately being called due to the downpour for a 6-4 Sox winner. While the initial 45-minute rain delay in the third inning was uneventful enough, things got interesting during the deluge in the top of the Fifth, when pitcher Freddy Garcia and his fielders found the sopping wet baseball all but impossible to pick up or throw. Garcia walked four Blue Jays, including two with the bases loaded, as a 6-0 lead rapidly shrank. With three runs in and the bases loaded, Big Bengie Molina came to the plate with two outs and hit a wet one to second base that Tadahito Iguchi — who had made one of the most amazing fielding plays in history on a Molina grounder the previous day — couldn't handle, nearly leading to an international incident between the clearly disgusted Venezuelan pitcher and his Japanese second baseman. Once he calmed down, Garcia whiffed Eric Hinske to preserve the two-run lead as the teams headed back to the clubhouse for a second rain delay. During the downtime, pitcher Mark Buerhle went all bush league and took it upon himself to entertain the remaining fans by sliding around on the infield tarp, the kind of thing that would only be cute if the disposable likes of Pablo Ozuna or Boone Logan were doing it. Shortly thereafter, a fan jumped onto the field to imitate Buerhle's acrobatics before security took him away. Finally, realizing that the rain wasn't going to clear anytime soon and that it would take hours after that to get the soaked field back into playable condition, the umpires called the game. While fears that the slip and slide would lead to an injury to our Cy Young candidate proved to be unfounded on this day, team management sternly warned Buerhle that he would face some very stern disciplinary action if he pulled this kind of stunt again. (To see the boisterously graceless Buerhle in action, check this Tribune photo gallery.)

Five: "Walk Right in, Sit Right Down, Baby Let Your Hair Hang Down"
Think Neal Cotts looks like Feral Boy from The Tick cartoon? Tired of Joe Crede resembling a member of Creed? Creeped out by that two-toned thing growing on Freddy Garcia's head? Noticed that AJ Pierzynski looks a little too much like the Amish bowler played by Randy Quaid in Kingpin? If so, rest assured that White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf feels your pain, as Pierzynski revealed Monday morning during his weekly segment on Mike North's radio show on WSCR. According to Pierzynski, while watching a game on television last week Reinsdorf put in a call to general manager Kenny Williams demanding that Crede and Pierzynski see a barber. Subsequent investigations unearthed the hairiness of Garcia and Cotts, and all four are scheduled to get a little taken off the top this week. Mullet Night will never be the same.

Fire in Five

More Sister-Kissing
by Steve Gillies

This weekend the Fire had to settle for a tie against league bottom feeders the Columbus Crew, bringing their record to an unimpressive 0-1-2. The game was broadcast on ESPN2, so I managed to watch from the comfort of my own home. I kind of wish I had gone to the bar for it, though. Beer definitely would have helped.

One: Bad Commentary
When college basketball announcer Dave O'Brien signed his million dollar contract with ESPN, he remembered that he really liked taking his girls to play soccer on the weekends. So he insisted on being able to call the US Men's National team during the World Cup. He's gaining experience by doing a couple of Major League Soccer games before the World Cup, and what he lacks in soccer knowledge, he makes up for by having a stack of player bios to read from. As a result, after watching a game with his commentary I can tell you what Columbus goalkeeper Jon Bush's vertical leap is, how many cups of coffee defender Frankie Hejduk has a day, that Chad Barret is a fan of Wayne Rooney, and that Wayne Rooney plays for Manchester United in England and has gambling problems. What I couldn't tell from listening to O'Brien's commentary is who had the ball at any given point during the game. Actually, there were parts of the game when I couldn't tell which teams were on the field — O'Brien managed to confuse Columbus with Colorado for a chunk of the first half.

Two: Terrible Call
Sure, I'm biased, but the call leading to the Columbus Crew's game-tying penalty kick blew. Jim Curtin bumped some Crew player (O'Brien was too busy talking about how Eddie Gaven was born on the same day the Mets won the World Series to identify the player when it happened) with his shoulder. It's nothing defenders don't do 100 times a game, but for some reason, possibly that the game was played in Columbus, the ref called him for the penalty and Columbus scored a goal they scarcely deserved. What really gets me is Justin Mapp went down on a similar bump in the first half and, rightly, the ref didn't make the call on that play.

Three: Nate Jaqua: He's Big, He's Fragile
He's a 6'3", 180-pound striker. In soccer that makes him a giant. He's great at winning balls in the air, and using his strength to hold up play to get the rest of the team involved in the attack. He's incredibly important to Chicago's offense; the only problem is that Nate Jaqua is hurt more often than he's healthy. Last season he injured his right foot and missed more than half the season. During the off season an MCL strain kept him out of training. After playing 24 minutes against LA, he didn't suit up this week because of a shoulder injury. Sure, possibly Jaqua's even more frustrated by the situation than me, but come on, Nate. You're bigger than everyone else. Stop getting hurt.

Four: Chris Rolfe is Carrying the Attack on His Shoulders
With Jaqua out injured, Chad Barett still playing like a rookie (although he did some good work to set up Chris Rolfe for his goal against Columbus) and Thiago fading in and out of games, Rolfe has been responsible for an undue amount of Chicago's attacking play. Other than a goal that came off a set play against Los Angeles, Rolfe has either scored or set up every goal the Fire has scored this season. He's also been unlucky to have two shots hit off the post rather than go in. I'm having a hard time even thinking of scoring chances we've created that didn't involve Rolfe. On one hand, it's great to see one of our young forwards playing so well; on the other hand, it's scary that our team depends so much on one guy. Should Rolfe's form slump, or God forbid he get hurt, I really don't know where the goals would come from.

Five: It's Going to Be Another Long Season
Two ties and a loss. That's two points out of a possible nine (three points for a win, one point for a tie and zero for a loss). You could make the argument that if a couple of plays had gone differently, if those two shots Rolfe hit the post with had gone in or that penalty not been called, we could be sitting on seven out of nine points. Over the past couple of years, however, the Fire has rarely found that extra something to make those kind of plays go their way. The Fire currently occupies the second to the last spot in the competitive Eastern Division, and has away games against the top teams looming. It's looking like another season where we'll be in a dogfight to pick up that fourth playoff spot.

Bulls in Five

It's All Up Now, Baby
by Jason Maslanka

Scott Skiles and I, and a host of others, thought it would be improbable for the Bulls to win six in a row to close out the season. Just a week later, they're a win away from doing just that. The Bulls are the hottest team in the NBA, having won nine of 10 and five in a row. They've secured a playoff spot, gelled at just the right moment, and could be as high as the fifth playoff seed. Winning in the playoffs is another story, but for now, it's all love for the baby Bulls.

One: Clinch
Starting with Sunday's matinee, the Bulls had three chances to win one game. At that point, it was pretty obvious that they were going to make the playoffs. With lowly Orlando and Toronto upcoming, that one win would happen at some point. Beating Miami, and handily in fact, was important not because it clinched a playoff berth, but because it instills confidence in a Bulls team who's about to start a seven game series with one of the East's dominant teams. After going down by double-digits in the first half, the Bulls could've given up. They could've accepted defeat to a better team and prepared for Orlando. They didn't. They came back and won 117-93 on national television.

Two: Detractors
The detractors will point out that Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O'Neal played a combined 40 minutes in Sunday's game. The Heat have their playoff position solidified and had nothing to play for. Don't let anyone say that the win doesn't matter. It does. It doesn't mean the Bulls would win a series against the Heat. It doesn't even mean they wouldn't get swept in the fictional series. What it means is that the Bulls didn't take three tries to clinch a playoff berth. They didn't make it close or scary. They just won. They won when they had to against a better team. That's the same attitude they have to bring to playoffs. On one day, in one game, anyone can beat anyone.

Threeeeee: Let's Be Realistic, Though
Realistically, the playoffs are a tough road for every lower seeded team. In the East, it seems especially ugly with the top four seeds, Detroit, Miami, New Jersey and Cleveland, having such clearly dominant seasons in comparison the mediocrity that Washington, Indiana, Milwaukee and the Bulls bring. What is really true, however, is that everyone outside of Detroit is very vulnerable. The Bulls just beat Miami. Shaq is pretty consistently banged up, Antoine Walker and Gary Payton can be flakey, and Wade is still young. New Jersey is a team we've seen the Bulls beat before as well. The Bulls took two of three in the season series this year and the Nets tend to watch Vince Carter shoot. Some nights, that can be good for the opponent. Cleveland is a one-man show. Granted, that one man is Lebron James, a boy who's a man among men. One-man shows fall apart in the playoffs. See the Minnesota Timberwolves in every recent season. The lesson: avoid the eighth spot and a date with the Pistons. They're in a league of their own.

Four: What's Left?
One game. Toronto Raptors. It doesn't sound like much, but it could be the difference between the eighth and fifth seeds in the Eastern Conference. There's absolutely no reason the Bulls should lose to the 27-54 Raptors, but it would be just like this year's team to do so. Wednesday night is important for seeding. It's important to keep the momentum going and it's most important for them to believe they can keep on winning.

Five: Most Valuable Everything
With only a few games remaining in the season, voters are in the midst of casting their season award ballots. There should be absolutely no doubt that Flip Saunders in Detroit should win Coach of the Year. He's a new coach taking over a team coached by a legend in Larry Brown. He's shown everyone that he wasn't the problem in Minnesota, where he was fired last year, and he's lead the Pistons to domination of the Eastern Conference and a brief flirtation with the Bulls' 72-10 record. The more interesting race is for MVP. Kobe Bryant should win the best player award. He was truly amazing throughout most of the season and has dragged a fairly mediocre team into the Western Conference playoffs. That Laker team, however, is the seventh seed, and seventh seeds don't have MVPs. Pundits mention Chauncey Billups as a candidate, but he's part of the best starting five in basketball. He's not the sole reason the Pistons win. They all are. Wade is a good candidate, but no matter how old, he has Shaq on his team and you can't get much more support than that. James is another good candidate but didn't dominate the entire season with his Cavaliers. The best candidate is the defending award holder. Steve Nash was last year's MVP because he made the Suns a top team in the league. This year, he did it again, but without Amare Stoudamire for most of the year. Nash does it all. He runs the team. He helps make everyone on the floor better and he scores when he needs to. He averages 20 points, 10 assists and five rebounds a game. He even makes Tim Thomas look good. Anyone that makes Tim Thomas look good should be the MVP of the NBA.

Standings Update: The Bulls (40-41) sit in the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. They share the same record as the Pacers and Bucks. They sit .5 games behind Washington (40-40), who's in the 5th spot.

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Comments

Kuz / April 19, 2006 5:48 PM

MLS soccer coverage on ESPN2 is definitely second-rate, not just in the booth, but also on the camera deck. The shots are too close in and they jump too much, so you have no idea what's happening. Can't they just steal an English announcer and a few cameramen or something?

 

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