Monday, September 28, 2009

It all comes down to this

Who would have thought that the only true pennant race would be in the mediocore American League Central? Not me.

The New York Yankees just clinched the East (what else is new?), their rival Red Sox are close to having the Wild Card locked up and the Angels are sure-champs out West. The National League also appears to be pretty well set.

With just seven games remaining in the regular season, the Twins were set to open a four-game series at Comerica Park on Monday night. I was all geared up for the game against the Tigers, an exciting series as the Twins looked to erase the two-game deficit they faced.

Unfortunately, the weather in Detroit was about the same as the Twin Cities: cold, windy and rainy. The postponed game created a doubleheader situation for Tuesday, leaving the teams and fans in suspense one more day before seeing these two teams fight it out for their spot atop the AL Central.

These remaining games for the Twins and Tigers are drawing a lot of attention. The originally scheduled afternoon Thursday finale was picked up today by FSN North. I also heard that ESPN will broadcast Wednesday's game, and FOX will highlight Saturday's game at the Dome versus Kansas City.

When major sports networks are turning to AL Central/midwest teams to broadcast at a national level, that's a pretty big deal.

By the numbers, it's a tough task
It is a bit of a tall order for the Twins. If they go 1-3 or get swept, they will be eliminated. Even a split would put them in a tough position. To use the sports cliche "must-win," these games truly are must-win situations.

We'll just have to see how this series shakes out, and then it's back home to face the Royals, while the Tigers host the White Sox. No matter what happens, at least Twins fans will have a few things to celebrate, regardless of a playoff berth:

1) Joe Mauer's (most likely, knock on wood) AL Batting Title. He started his season a month late with a home run on his first swing. He hasn't looked back since. Mauer has once again made hitting look easy. Very easy. He is an essential part of this ball club and is very deserving of all his individual recognition.

2) The Twins have played outstanding September baseball. Not only have they been winning series, they have also gone on season-high winning streaks and notched a few sweeps. They're making a race out of the division with their great play. You can't ask for too much more.

3) Michael Cuddyer. Back in April, he struggled immensely. He seemed to strikeout more than anything else. And now, as he has taken over for the injured Justin Morneau at first base, he is going to finish 2009 with a career year (30 homers and 89 RBI, through Sept. 27). There is even some buzz of him being named a Comeback Player of the Year. Oh, and his nickname lately has become "Clutch" on Twitter.

4) Goodbye to the Metrodome. The Twins will play their final regular season home game against the Royals this Sunday. It's a bittersweet change for the team, as it leaves behind the stadium where it won two world championships. But I'm sure everyone will love being at Target Field... at least on warm summer evenings.

When the Tigers versus Twins series finally gets underway, I hope fans will once again be treated to some exciting, playoff-caliber baseball games.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We've got a pennant race

It certainly was a productive and exciting weekend for the Minnesota Twins. In a much-hyped three-game series against the Detroit Tigers, the Twins put together two wins to reach within three games of first place.

Rookie Brian Duensing cruised for six-plus innings on Friday and Michael Cuddyer hit a two-run blast to help the Twins to a 3-0 victory. Duensing has been the team's best pitcher as of late with a 4-1 season record and a 3.22 ERA. And with the absence of All-Star Justin Morneau for the remainder of the season, his first-base replacement has been Michael "Clutch" Cuddyer.

In a 3 p.m. start the next day, the Twins looked like they would be losing the ground they had gained. The magic happened in the five-run bottom of the eighth inning. Down 2-1, the Twins had some help from the Metrodome roof in order to prevail. Detroit's leftfielder lost a fly ball in the lights/roof which allowed runners on base. Jason Kubel followed with a two-run single to left, and "Clutch" smashed a homer to left-center.

Saturday's win was a big one. It gave the Twins a series win, with a chance to sweep the Tigers. It marked the team's sixth consecutive win, it's longest streak of the year. It put the them four games above .500, a place where they have hovered all season long. It also brought the Twins to within two games of the Tigers in probably the worst division in baseball.

The Twins ended up losing the rubber game to fall back to three games out, but the momentum was theirs. The Tigers can't feel too good after being dominated by the lowly Royals, and then losing two of three at the Dome. But they can take heart in knowing that they will host the Twins for four games at the end of the month.

Familiar territory
This has been another up-and-down season for the Twins. While they have played great lately, they need to keep up the pace. A .500 team such as Minnesota tends to go on good runs, and then collapse into bad tail spins for a few games.

It was the same way last season. I thought there was no way the Twins would have any chance at the playoffs, but they kept sticking around and ended up playing game No. 163 in Chicago. This year I've been saying the same thing about this team. They step up and win games they shouldn't (on paper), and then they play lousy against teams they should be cleaning up on.

Now here we are again. It's mid-September and the Twins are in the thick of a pennant race, despite the fact that it's a race in a very weak division. And keeping in mind that the winner of the AL Central will most likely be playing baseball's powerhouse, the New York Yankees. They're practially unbeatable for the Twins.

There are still a couple weeks left in the regular season, so it's really a waiting game to see how the Twins will respond after a big series win at home. They go on the road for three divisional series before playing their final three games at the Metrodome.

If nothing else, I hope the Twins can keep up the intensity and play some exciting baseball until the end. Whether that's through game 162 (or 163), or deeper into October, we'll just have to see what happens at the finish line.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Serena's meltdown

We've all been angry at one point or another in our lives. We've all seen others lose their tempers and situations that escalate in the heat of the moment. But I'd have to say that the events that ended the U.S. Open women's semifinal match between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters left the tennis world stunned.

Rainy weather washed out tournament play on Friday, and for much of Saturday. It wasn't even clear if the Williams/Clijsters showdown would take place that evening.

By now the news of Serena's actions have been well-documented throughout the news and YouTube world. I watched a replay of her words to the lineswoman via my DVR the next morning. I was truly surprised at what transpired and her vulgar language.

Then I read through the transcript of her post-match interview, which left me losing more respect for Serena than before. What I basically heard from her comments is that she had no remorse for what happened. She didn't think an apology was necessary to the lineswoman whom she verbally threatened with the words:

"If I could, I would take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat."

In seeing the video of the exchange with the chair umpire, and tournament referee Brian Earley, I got an even better sense of how Serena felt about her actions. Her defense was simply this: "Sorry, but there are a lot of people who've said way worse."

Oh, come on. That's your excuse? First of all, taking the John McEnroe approach, or citing any other player who's gotten mad at a linesjudge or chair, is not in the same league as what Serena did. Getting upset about a call and making that known by yelling at the chair umpire by saying "you can't be serious" is not the same thing as threatening to shove a tennis ball down someone's throat.

Not to mention that she was trying to justify what she said by saying she's heard worse; that is unacceptable as well. Remember the "if everyone jumped off a bridge" scenario?

Plus, nothing in her interview seemed to add up. I did not feel that she saw the severity of what she did, or that it was even a big deal. She seemed more concerned with the fact that, in her eyes, the U.S. Open kept calling her for foot faults. The call that set her off was questionable, but that is entirely beside the point. Nothing justifies her behavior.

I can understand that her outburst was probably the result of a "heat of the moment" situation. Everybody loses their cool sometimes. But what was hard to get past for me were her actions following the incident. Coming out with remorse and apologetic words, instead of defensiveness and essentially brushing it off as nothing out of the ordinary, would be the way to handle the aftermath.

Serena was fined $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct by the U.S. Open on Sunday. To put it in perspecitve, she earned $350,000 for reaching the semifinals. Another investigation is ongoing by the Grand Slam tournament officials, which could result in a much heftier fine for one of America's top female players.

While I was writing this entry, Serena served up an apology (on her second attempt) on her Web site, and also made an abbreviated entry on her Twitter page. My first thought? Too little, too late. This second statement does not reek of the same sincerity it may have, had it come sooner. Here is her initial attempt at an "apology" Sunday through a public relations agency:

"Last night everyone could truly see the passion I have for my job. Now that I have had time to gain my composure I can see that while I don't agree with the unfair line call, in the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result handled the situation poorly."

Maybe I need to go back and read it for the fourth time, because I can't find the words "I'm sorry" or "apologize" anywhere. And dubbing the line call "unfair" doesn't sound like an apology to me.

Now, she has amended that statement today, in order to "sincerely apologize." I'm sorry Ms. Williams, but I don't think you can use the word "sincere" at this stage of the game.

Note: Serena also apologized during her post-match interview after she and sister Venus won the women's doubles title. The apologies have been made as she hopes to move on with her career. I think the tennis world will move on with her, but this incident will not stray far from memories.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Upsets in Flushing

As the U.S. Open began its run this year, I realized it is the first time I can really enjoy the tournament, without the stress of the looming school year ahead. It's a nice feeling to look forward to Labor Day as a day off, rather than the end of summer and the start of classes.

I have kept up with the match results pretty well this year, and I have watched as much tennis as I can. Yesterday, I watched a great three-set battle between the No. 29 player and former Open champion, Maria Sharapova, and the 17-year-old Melanie Oudin.

After reading various articles about how American tennis players are scarce, other than the obvious dominant Williams sisters and Andy Roddick, the young teen from Georgia seems to have given the nation some hope. Before her third round match with Sharapova, Oudin upset No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva by a 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 score.

I was cheering for Oudin from the start in her match against the 6' 2" Russian. Oudin resembles her hero Justine Henin-Hardenne with her petite stature, but that didn't stop her from playing smart tennis.

Marathon match
The nearly three-hour marathon match was a great one to watch. I was very into it, as my family could tell by hearing my shrieks and shouts at the television set. Points were long and capped with exciting winners. Oudin was thrilling to watch with her fist-pumps and "c'mon's" after her winning points.

A seemingly pivotal time in the match came when the young American was up 3-1 in the third set on Sharapova. Oudin had five break chances to extend her lead to a commanding 4-1 in the decisive set. As the two rallied back and forth between deuce points, my shouts grew louder and more frustrated as Oudin just couldn't quite finish off the game.

Sharapova finally prevailed to narrow the score at 3-2, and then she proceeded to call for the trainer on the changeover. It was dubbed a "veteran move" from commentator and tennis legend John McEnroe. After the lengthy delay, neither player seemed too worse for the wear.

The final set was quite interesting with many service breaks. I was just hoping Oudin could pull off the upset instead of blow a big lead like the ranking match-up might suggest. She managed to finally seal the victory before her opponent could force a tie-breaker.

The crowd was certainly cheering for Oudin, and she acknowledged them in her post-match interview, in between a few stray tears. She deserved to be commended for her great play, and her cinderella story that was quickly unfolding.

Of course, Sharapova's stats for the day cannot go unmentioned. She committed a U.S. Open record 21 double faults, which is enough to hand an opponent five-plus games. She also rang up 63 unforced errors, 19 more than her victorious opponent. These two glaring numbers will not leave a good taste in her mouth, that's for sure.

Now Oudin is on to the next round to face, for the first time ever, No. 13 Nadia Petrova. She has gained a lot of publicity with her current run, and no doubt a lot of fan support in her home country.

Elsewhere on the courts
Many were hoping American favorite Roddick, ranked No. 5, would be able to reach the finals after his near-miss championship at Wimbledon earlier this summer. But unfortunately his time in New York ended with a five-set loss to fellow American John Isner. Roddick played catch-up by winning the third and fourth sets, before losing in a final-set tie breaker. (7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6)

Venus Williams and Belgium's Kim Clijsters (back from a two-year maternity leave) faced each other on Sunday in what turned out to be an interesting match. Clijsters quickly gave her slow-starting opponent a bagel in the first set. But Williams responded with a 6-0 set of her own to get back to even.

The one-sided sets led to a more competitive final set. Clijsters, as the wild card, was able to snatch the win over the No. 3-seeded Williams with a 6-4 third set. Another upset on the women's side was complete. One Williams sister was out, and another underdog was through to the next round.

No. 1 seed Dinara Safina was finally taken out of her disasterous tournament run. She moved through the first two rounds, but it came at the price of three sets and poor play on her part. She lost in the third round to Petra Kvitova. Her early exit proves that the ranking system is not very accurate. Then again, with all the upsets on the women's side, who knows how it will shuffle the player rankings.