Friday, December 31, 2010

The best and worst 'Thoughts' of 2010 - Part two

Part one of The Best 'Thoughts' are certainly more fun than looking at The Worst 'Thoughts.' But sports aren't always about what goes right; a lot can go wrong over the course of a season for teams. On the bright side, I did find fewer Worst moments than Best, so that should make you happy.

I left the moments in chronological order because that seemed easier than trying to rank in order of the biggest/worst moments.

The worst...

Free Petr! Veteran Sykora sits out
When the Wild and coach Todd Richards sat veteran player Petr Sykora while others like James Sheppard played, it was not one of the finer moments for the organization. Sykora was not given a fair shake. Plus, my negative feelings for Shep kept going strong.

The most dreaded words for a pitcher: Tommy John
Twins' closer Joe Nathan went down before the season started. Some discomfort in a spring training outing led to one of the biggest injury setbacks a pitcher can have: Tommy John surgery. He was out for all of 2010. Time will tell if he can return to the same form at some point in 2011.

Twins get swept, time to reflect
Sigh. Another great season and division title, and it all comes crashing down (again) with an early exit from the postseason. This was the year I (and everyone else) was really pulling for the guys to go further, or perhaps all the way. This is certainly one of the most difficult 2010 moments to swallow. (Also see: Pondering the Twins)

Tommies end season with a snow-filled loss to Bethel
It was really too bad St. Thomas had to have its magical season come to an end. Without two of their star players, they fell to MIAC rival Bethel 12-7 at home. The snow also dampened things, from my perspective anyway.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The best and worst 'Thoughts' of 2010 - Part one

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to organize some of the best and worst sports moments that I have written about throughout 2010. Since this is the first entire calendar year I have been maintaining my blog, I thought it would be kind of fun to look back.

I left the moments in chronological order because that seemed easier than trying to rank in order of the biggest/best moments.

The best...

A golden finish
The Olympics in Vancouver held one of the greatest gold-medal hockey games since perhaps the Miracle on Ice. Quite fitting too, since it was the 30th anniversary of the Miracle. Team USA skated its way to the final game against hometown-favorite Canada. It was a thriller that ended with a 3-2 overtime win for the Canadians after a goal by golden boy Sidney Crosby.

At last, Mauer's deal is done
If the hometown hero Joe Mauer could leave Minnesota in search of more money with another team, then there would be no hope for anyone sticking with one team for an entire career. Luckily, the Twins and Joe agreed to terms on an eight-year, $184 million deal.

Another opening, another "outdoor" show
Perhaps one of the biggest stories of the year was the return of outdoor baseball to Minnesota with the opening of Target Field in April. The facility is simply stunning, and Mother Nature went against logic by blessing the 2010 season with gorgeous weather. (Also see: Target Field: The inaugural visit)

Walking off the Sox
I was there for the first Twins walk-off win in Target Field history. Of course, this win may get overlooked because it wasn't a walk-off hit, but oh well. The Twins came from behind by knocking around White Sox closer Bobby Jenks in the ninth on the way to a 7-6 victory.

Mid-Ohio - Days one and two
Checking out a new race track with my dad was a highlight of my summer. I was very excited to watch the IZOD IndyCar Series race at the beautiful track, and then have the chance to write about it for, too.

Touring the Brickyard
Of course, part two of the highlight of my summer was taking the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grounds tour. Talk about acting like a youngster on Christmas morning.

Two in a row: 2010 AL Central Division Champions
The Twins did it again. They managed to win yet another division title to round out the decade. No Game 163 this time; they were the first team in baseball to clinch. Let's just enjoy this memory. There's no need to think ahead. (See the Worst section if you want to ruin this happy memory.)

Covering tennis for the Strib
This was a very proud moment for me. I was given the opportunity to cover part of the high school girls' tennis state tournament. It was so great to cover a sport I played, and seeing your name in print isn't half bad either.

A perfect season for the Tommies
Watching the St. Thomas football team have a perfect season, that also lasted a couple games into the NCAA playoffs, was pretty cool. A big congrats to coach Glenn Caruso and the Tommies on a record-setting season of accomplishments.

Check out The best and worst 'Thoughts' of 2010 - part two for some of the not-so-great moments from this past year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wild make it two straight against the Flames

I was watching the Minnesota Wild at the Calgary Flames game on television from a local establishment Saturday night when the boys pulled out a 3-1 win on the road.

While I was glad for the victory, I also thought this meant the Wild would have the usual letdown game when they came home to face the Flames again on Monday night - and more importantly, when I would be in attendance.

The boys proved me wrong.

Two-game streak

Minnesota came up with a 4-1 (really 3-1; Cal Clutterbuck threw in an empty-netter to seal it) win over the division rival Calgary Flames on Monday at the Xcel Energy Center. It was a very snowy night, one a majority of Minnesotans will remember for the Vikings versus Bears game played at TCF Bank Stadium.

It's really too bad the Wild were overshadowed by the local football team, although I'm sure they're used to it by now. There were some shining moments on the ice, as well as some not-so-great moments.

The Wild were outshot all night long, with the final totals 35-23 in favor of the Flames. Early on, I was very surprised Calgary didn't score. They were getting all kinds of chances, but kudos to Niklas Backstrom for making some great saves.

Niklas Backstrom stretching in the crease before making 34 saves. Photo credit: Kyle Rule.

Second period slump... again
What's a bit of a head-scratcher for me is that the Wild managed to score two power-play goals; the first time since Nov. 14. Their power play didn't look too hot at times during the night. In particular, the Wild held the man advantage nearing the end of the second period.

It was pretty hard to watch, what with not being able to set up plays and multiple Wild men turning the puck over. That was not a good way to end the period, and they were hearing it from the fans (yes, myself included.).

Of course, the second period wasn't a complete slaughtering, at least on the scoreboard (1-1 after two). The Wild still struggled a lot, as has been the story of the season, in the second. But it was the superb play by goalie Backstrom that kept them in the game.

Havlat on a roll
Martin Havlat continues to produce, this time he was patient and netted the puck with a slick backhander right in the crease. Veteran John Madden scored a power-play goal, and recent call-up Marco Scandella got an assist on Kyle Brodziak's first-period goal.

This was the first game my family and I have been to this season, and therefore the first since the sell-out streak ended. There were quite a number of green seats at the X. I'm sure the weather, traffic and the football game were factors too.

Opening faceoff. Let's play hockey! Photo credit: Kyle Rule.

Attendance and other notes
My dad told me, "Now you know what it was like to go to a North Stars game when they weren't doing so well." Official attendance was 18,315, but there were not that many people in the seats.

One other interesting note from the evening. On part of our side-roads drive down to the game, we hit a heavy traffic spot and were crawling for a while. From the backseat, I looked over to the driver on our right, and the guy is working on a power point from his laptop that he had positioned on the passenger seat next to him - while driving. Idiot.

But at least we got there and were able to enjoy the game and some good food. It was also a nice treat to see my friend Michael, who stopped to say hi after his shift.

'Til the next game, Go Wild!
Me in my Wild gear. Photo credit: Kyle Rule.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tommies end season with a snow-filled loss to Bethel

Below freezing temperatures, mounds of snow and... football. While two of those items may go together better than the other, they were all snowballed this past Saturday as the St. Thomas Tommies hosted the Bethel Royals in the NCAA quarterfinals.

It was a rare and exciting matchup to have two teams from the same conference playing each other in the playoffs. The Tommies bested the Royals earlier this year in a 10-6 homecoming victory.

But this time it was the school from just a few miles north that came away with the win. Bethel topped St. Thomas 12-7 to move on to the semifinals next weekend against powerhouse Mount Union.

Photo Credit: Joe Henke

One score early, then D takes over
With the snow and parking ramp adventures, I was walking up to the ticket booth as I heard the PA announcer proclaim a touchdown for St. Thomas running back Colin Tobin. This was just a couple minutes into the game. But with the strong defensive play on both sides, I thought to myself, "Great. I'll bet that's the only time they score." Hoping, of course, that I was wrong.

I met up with my friend Joe and his friend Joan. The stands were pretty packed, a good thing to see, but we found some standing room in the front row along the 15-yard line.

As expected, the elite defenses took over the game. Both sides traded possessions and tried to convert on fourth downs, hoping the other would give just enough. Bethel scored a touchdown in the second quarter, but failed on the two-point conversion. It was a move that seemed odd to us in such a defensive game, but afterward I found out Bethel doesn't have much of a kicker.

Just not their day
The score at halftime was 7-6 in favor of St. Thomas. Bethel scored another touchdown late in the second half (again failing to convert for two points) to take the lead for good at 12-7. The Tommies had their chances, but failed to get enough first downs to move the ball down the field.

A couple big passing plays didn't go their way either. A long pass down the sideline appeared to be caught in bounds, but was ruled out of bounds. (At least according to what Joe could see, being that he had the height advantage.)

Another play later had a St. Thomas receiver with the ball in his hands, but he failed to complete the catch as he went down to the ground with a defender.

Bethel's star of the day was Logan Flannery. The 2010 MIAC MVP had 28 carries for 200 yards in his record-setting performance Saturday. He not only helped his team advance to the next round, but he also ran his way to becoming the MIAC's all-time leading rusher.

Key injuries to key Tommies
It was a pretty typical game, except two pieces were missing for the Tommies: Star All-American senior running back Ben Wartman didn't start due to injury. Junior wide receiver Fritz Waldvogel was knocked out of the game early with a hip injury.

Those were big losses for the Tommies. Wartman and Waldvogel had been two of the team's biggest playmakers. It's a shame they couldn't contribute during the final game.

Photo Credit: Joe Henke

As a result, Tobin was the main source of offense. He rushed 28 times for 122 yards, but it wasn't enough to put more than seven points on the board, a credit to the strong Bethel defense.

Penalties were once again a problem for St. Thomas, as they have been all season long. A few false-starts, holding and face masks did not help the Tommies along the way. It stopped momentum and helped the Royals on their drives.

Outdoor football in Minnesota
Several inches of fresh white powder made the day a little more interesting. Of course, we are talking about December in Minnesota; we can't expect great weather on Dec. 4. The field was scraped clean, and the snow piles were abundant around the sideline track and the end zones.

The remnants left behind after clearing the field looked like cookies-n-cream ice cream, or an Oreo blizzard, as Joe put it.

To be honest, it was a little hard to concentrate on the game at times, what with the feeling in my toes disappearing. Snow also started falling again during the second half. But it was still a fun experience.

Well done
Congratulations to the Tommies on a fantastic, record-filled season. They finished the regular season undefeated at 10-0 and finished 12-1 overall. They finally beat St. John's after a 13-year drought, and they beat Bethel for homecoming in an absolute thriller. Kudos.

As a reward for coach Glenn Caruso's hard work, he was honored as the Region Coach of the Year. Here's to a job well done coach.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tough times for the Wild

The wheels are starting to fall off for the Minnesota Wild. Offense continues to be stingy and the goaltending wall that helped the team to some wins early on, has faltered lately (or is it the bad defensive play?).

Saturday's loss at Colorado was pretty bad. A 7-4 beating after the usual second-period coma. The Wild were up 2-1 after the first, not too shabby. But they gave up four goals in the second, entering the final 20 minutes behind 5-3. Things got worse in the third when the Avalanche really came down before the mercy of the final horn signaled the 7-4 loss.

Niklas Backstrom gave up a career-high seven goals. Maybe he would have been able to save face if head coach Todd Richards would have pulled him for Jose Theodore after the fifth or sixth goal, not the seventh.

Baks isn't playing that well lately, with his stats going in the wrong direction, but it's hard to put it all on his shoulders. He stood on his head for many games early on this season, which helped the Wild pull off some victories.

It's the same old story for the Wild as to why they are struggling. Bad turnovers, playing in their own end too much, the second-period sleep walking and a lack of offense from the big guns. Matt Cullen, Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette and Brent Burns need to step it up.

Richards, where are you?
But what really bugged me about Saturday's loss was Richards. Maybe it's always been this way and I just haven't paid that much attention, but he shows as much emotion as a stone. The TV camera showed him after every goal against. Nothing.

When the Avs were putting up goal after goal, Richards showed no desperation. Call a time out. Pull the goalie before things start to get out of hand. Start yelling at the guys on the bench. Something. Of course, we don't know what is said during the intermissions and in the locker room after the game, but still.

Whatever happened to that rigorous practice after a bad Vancouver loss earlier? The Wild straightened up and flew right in the next game. Maybe Richards needs to hold more practices like that one.

Results certainly need to turn around, or who knows if Richards will still have his job by the end of the season.

PMB returns
One bright spot is the return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard to the lineup tonight against the Coyotes. PMB has been sidelined with a concussion since March 2009. We all know how tricky the concussion injury can be, so let's hope Butch is fully healed and ready to go. Maybe he'll bring that much-needed spark to the team.

Something needs to change, or it will be a long season.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Heather's Turkey of the Year candidates

It's Thanksgiving week. It's a time to sit back, relax, enjoy some time off from work or school, eat a lot of food and watch football.

There's also Black Friday, but apparently it's not the holiday-season kick-off it used to be. (If anyone knows what exactly is the new, earlier start to the season, let me know. I'm having trouble figuring it out.)

For me, I'm looking forward to my own traditions I've started on Thanksgiving. Like watching as many Friends Thanksgiving episodes on DVD as I can.

Of course, reading Patrick Reusse's Turkey of the Year column in the Star Tribune is also a treat. In honor of his masterful concept, I thought I'd try to come up with a few Turkey candidates of my own.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Derek Jeter - shortstop, New York Yankees
This talented Yankee player thinks he's pretty special. He's probably always thought this way, but his recent contract negotiations seem to show that even more.

A winner of five World Series Championships with the Bombers, he will turn 37 next season. After a declining year in 2010, he is holding out for at least a four-year deal. Apparently, the three-year, $45 million contract offered by the Yankees just isn't enough for this greedy veteran.

I think three years is awfully generous for a player in his late thirties, and for someone who has most likely hit his peak. But what do I know.

Jason Kubel - outfielder, Minnesota Twins
I suppose I could be more broad and list the entire Twins lineup for its poor performance in the playoffs. But it's Kubel's .069 career postseason average that led me to single him out.

He has been referred to as one of the most underrated players in baseball. He hits clutch home runs and contributes well offensively. But there is nothing clutch about his horrible postseason numbers.

Sorry Kubes, but you need to bring your bat with you after 162 (or 163) games.

Tim Brewster - former Golden Gophers football head coach, University of Minnesota
This is an easy pick, and I think Reusse might have chosen him already in a previous year (and could easily this year). It's just too good to pass up.

Brewster was fired mid-season this year after his team failed to win more than one game (a game they probably could have lost if the opposing star quarterback would have been playing).

He was just nauseating to listen to during news conferences; his answers were border-line delusional. This makes me loathe the guy even more than how he coached his team to such pathetic, laughable losses.

Joel Maturi - athletic director, University of Minnesota
Here's a guy who should be fired. He doesn't exactly have the best track record as of late. Exhibit A: Hiring coach Brewster and thinking he was the man to turn the football program around. Instead, it's gone in the tank.

To quote Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan, from his Sunday radio show on 1500ESPN, "I wouldn't buy an apple from this guy [Brewster]."

Then there's the men's hockey team, another sinking ship. Earlier in this decade, the team was a national champion. What happened? Firing coach Don Lucia isn't the answer. And using the excuse "all the good players go to the NHL" isn't flying anymore either. That happens to a lot of other schools too.

The U just named a new president. His first act should be to fire the AD and start building up the sports programs again. And please, if you know what's good for you, don't let Maturi hire the new football coach. Unless you want a repeat of the Brew era.

Todd Richards - head coach, Minnesota Wild
During his first full season with the Wild last year, I was willing to give him a pass for the mediocre team that failed to make the playoffs. Call it a grace period.

But now just shy of two months into the season, I'm expecting more. The Wild have shown mediocrity yet again. Not showing up to play a full 60 minutes of hockey, a lack of five-on-five offense, getting outshot and camping out in its own end have been the major problems plaguing the team game after game.

And what's with all the optional practices? Unless I'm just imagining things, it seems like there are a lot of no-practice, or optional skate days. Maybe that's normal and I'm just ignorant, but I think it's a little odd.

It's the day after a horrible loss, sure, take the day off boys. Bring 'em out on the ice, skate 'em hard and let 'em know mediocrity is not acceptable.

Oh, Richards is also a candidate because of his strong faith in the ability of youngster and under-achiever James Sheppard. Loyal readers of this blog know how I feel about Shep's on-ice performance.

A slew of Viking candidates...
I won't get into all the details for these guys, but here are some other options from the purple pool, again in no particular order:
  • Brett Favre
  • Brad Childress
  • Sidney Rice
  • Ryan Longwell
  • Bernard Berrian
  • Randy Moss

So there you have it. Do you have a top Turkey from my list? Or another candidate you'd like to nominate? Let me know in the comments.

Happy Turkey Day!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

State volleyball tournament

One of the best things about prep sports is the state tournaments. Of course, they're a lot more fun if your favorite school happens to have made the elite cut, therefore giving many high school students across the state a day to play hooky.

The state volleyball tournament at the Xcel Energy Center was this past weekend. Thursday through Saturday the section champions from each of the three classes competed for championship and consolation titles. Twenty-four teams boil down to three state champions.

Let's go Huskies!
Being that I'm an Andover girl, I can't go further without mentioning that the Huskies made it into the tourney once again. They came away as the consolation champions in 2009, and they were the runners-up a couple of years ago.

I was unable to attend the quarterfinal matches on Thursday, where Andover lost to powerhouse Wayzata in Class 3A. The quarters are always an exciting atmosphere, because every team is in contention for a championship, thus bringing out a ton of fans. For teams that fall to the consolation brackets (like Andover) on Friday, the number of supporters shrinks significantly in most cases, and pep bands often don't make the trip either, which is a shame.

Going against this trend, I decided to watch Andover's 11 a.m. consolation semifinal match against Moorhead on Friday. The Huskies took care of the Spuds in three (games or sets... the term has changed recently, but I think I like the old-school games). It was fun to watch some volleyball again and see a few familiar faces from the Andover crowd.

Pleasant surprise
Afterward, I headed down to see if I could meet up with one of the Star Tribune writers who was there covering the afternoon and evening matches. I thought I was just going to say hi, but then he quickly found someone from the High School League and got me a media pass. So I spent the next couple hours watching from the media table down on the floor.

I also took a walk around the entire concourse at the arena level, going past all the locker rooms and getting a peek into the media room, complete with large, blown-up photographs of the Minnesota Wild hanging on the walls.

Match of the tournament
The match I watched that afternoon was the Class 1A semifinals with No. 1-seeded Minneota versus No. 4 Martin County West. Being the No. 1 seed always results in being the favorite, but MCW fought back from two games down to win 24-26, 17-25, 25-11, 25-19, 17-15, upsetting Minneota.

It was probably one of the best matches of the tournament. Five-gamers are always intense, especially when the winning team comes from behind the way MCW did. There were also a lot of 3-0 sweeps, so a match like this one was welcomed, and it came with an electric atmosphere.

Watching the match from the floor level was pretty cool. I enjoyed being in the thick of things, trying to keep track of some of the star players and just generally learning more about the game.

Thanks a lot, snow
Had it not been for the snowy blizzard on Saturday morning, I probably would have returned for the 9 a.m. consolation-final match between Andover and East Ridge. Instead, I decided to head down there later for the 3A final that looked like a good one on paper, between Wayzata and Lakeville North.

Once again, I was able to watch the match from the floor at the media table. I even got into the action by tossing the stray ball back to a Wayzata player after it landed on the table a couple of points into the match.

It wasn't the classic match you would expect from the No. 1 and No. 2-seeded teams; North (No. 1) swept Wayzata in three games with scores that really weren't that close: 25-13, 25-18, 25-13. The McNeil sisters on the Lakeville side were just too much for Wayzata. The first-game domination set the tone for the rest of the match.

So goes another sporting event to stash in my learning-experience file. I just want to keep learning more about more sports and about how to cover them from a media standpoint. It's all about trying to improve while enjoying sports at the same time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A perfect season for the Tommies

A 10-0 regular season. The St. Thomas football team has accomplished this feat for the first time in its 105-year history. Statistics and records from this season are incredible. This all comes just three years into head coach Glenn Caruso's career at St. Thomas.

With a bye in the final week of the season this Saturday, the Tommies can rest easy and know that they have earned an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs. It's a spot they deserved after winning their first MIAC title since 1990, and its first outright title since 1983.

This was their year
A lot of things went right for the Tommies this season, including huge victories over St. John's and Bethel. Those were probably the two biggest games of the year. In a homecoming game for the Johnnies, they were upset in overtime by the long-time rival Tommies, 27-26. It was the first time St. Thomas had been victorious in the Tommie-Johnnie battle in the last 13 tries.

In the homecoming game for Caruso and his players, it was a game of undefeateds as tough-squad Bethel arrived at O'Shaughnessy Stadium. I attended that game, along with 6,000-plus others, to watch the Tommies come away with a 10-6 win in a strong defensive battle. That was a great game.

Double-digit win total
This past weekend, I also went to cheer on the Tommies in their last regular-season home game against Carleton. I got a little nervous during the first half. Having trouble getting first downs, 56 yards in penalties and just a 10-7 halftime lead were enough to make me squirm.

But they came back in a tale of two halves, as they say. Caruso's squad came out firing with 28 unanswered points before securing a 38-7 win, ringing the victory bell and raising the MIAC trophy in celebration on the field.

If you are hungry for some more stats and records, chew on these...

  • This team became the fourth in 95 years to have an unbeaten regular-season record
  • As of right now, St. Thomas is the only Division III football team to hold a 10-0 record
  • They are among six teams in all of NCAA football to have a 10-0 record
  • 282 points for senior Ben Wartman, breaking a school record
And in case you missed it, check out this amazing feature (complete with photos and video) on Caruso and the Tommies written by the Star Tribune's Rachel Blount.

Now the Tommies wait until next week to find out their opponent in the first round of the playoffs, where they will have home field advantage. In my mind though, no matter what happens from here on out, this season was a huge success in Tommie football. I hope it's the start of many more successful years to come.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Highs and lows for the Wild

The Wild had an up-and-down week. Last Monday they blew a 2-0 lead and lost to the visiting Los Angeles Kings 3-2 in a shootout. Wild players also held another parade to the penalty box throughout the night.

Blowing a 2-0 lead is one thing, but to do it by constantly putting yourself in a bad position by playing shorthanded is just bad. A lot of the penalties are things like hooking and tripping, meaning the Wild aren't keeping pace so they need to try to grab guys from behind.

Shootout woes
Then there's the shootout. Despite what the numbers and records say (and I don't think it's too good), I just don't have a good feeling when the Wild reach the shootout. When they head to overtime, I'm silently hoping the game ends there. They've already lost two shootouts this season, the first one coming against Carolina in Finland.

Yes, Niklas Backstrom doesn't have the greatest record in the deciding session, but he can't do it alone either. Maybe this is all in my head, but Wild players don't exactly pound in the goals. They may only get one or two goals in a longer-than-three-tries shootout.

Like in the games, many players try to get too fancy. Some will miss the net entirely, or fail to get a shot off. I'm not asking for perfection every time, and obviously the goalie is trying to make a save, but they need to step it up a bit.

And what did the Wild earn for their blown performance? Another intense practice with coach Todd Richards as the slave driver (something that worked for a huge win against the Canucks)? No. They had an extremely optional practice the next morning.

Now I remember my main beef with Richards last year. He seemed to hold a lot of optional practices for a team that struggled all season long, right from the start. Pick your moments, coach.

Mr. Ovechkin comes to town
The Wild followed up the ugly loss with a solid win over the tough Washington Capitals on Thursday evening. One of the NHL's most popular players, Alexander Ovechkin, came to town to try and get his team a victory in the X for the first time ever.

It wasn't to be. The Caps are the only NHL team without a win on the Wild's home ice. Of course, with the way the League schedule works out, and the fact that these two are in different conferences, the Caps have only visited St. Paul six times.

Minnesota played well all night long. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first, and this time it stuck. The only tally for the Caps was a third-period goal by Ovechkin, resulting in a final score of 2-1.

I did feel a little bad for the hometown boys, because the fans didn't seem very enthusiastic about the fact that the boys were playing well. At one point, the Wild were moving the puck around like it was a power play, and it was 5-on-5 hockey. When the puck was finally cleared, the cheers from the 17,000-plus in the seats were weak at best.

I thought they played a really great game on Thursday, especially against such a high-profile, high-talent team like the Caps.

Back down the slide versus the Cup winners
The Wild then went back down on Saturday with a 3-1 loss to the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. I wasn't able to watch it, but from what I saw on Twitter, it was a tight first period, then things got worse for the Wild in the second as Chicago took a 2-0 lead.

A too-little-too-late goal came with just under six minutes remaining in the game, but an empty-netter off a turnover by Martin Havlat sealed the deal for the Hawks.

Speaking of Havlat, his agent Allan Walsh spouted off to the media last week about how Havlat wasn't being treated like the star player he is, in regard to ice time and such. I don't really agree with that. It's still early in the season, and Havlat hasn't impressed me much yet.

Truth is, newcomer and Minnesotan Matt Cullen is emerging as the team's best player so far. He has three goals and seven assists, plus he looks commanding on the ice. He goes for the net, and tries to make big plays happen.

New season, same inconsistency
A good game here and a bad one there is the same inconsistency we've seen from the Wild before. It's not a way to make the playoffs. And with the official sellout streak being killed at the Xcel Center, it's clear that the honeymoon is definitely over.

It took 10 years, but fans now want to see more than a bottom-eight finish in the Western Conference.

Covering tennis for the Strib

I had the privilege last week of covering the Class 1A girls' state tennis tournament in Minneapolis. It was an exciting couple of days for me because I earned my first official bylines in the Star Tribune.

Wednesday was the team finals, and Friday was the singles final. I wrote a small story about each match. It was a nice experience to cover an event, and then turn right around and write the story for the daily deadline.

I was a tennis player in high school, but I had never witnessed the state tournament festivities before. Covering a sport I was very familiar with at that level helped me feel a lot more comfortable.

Getting my feet wet
Watching the team tennis final is a bit more challenging than watching the singles final. There are seven matches going on at once, and you don't know which will be competitive, which will finish first and which might clinch the win. You also don't get to watch a lot of one match, so the team final is more about finding a good story angle.

The singles final between two of the top-ranked players looked like it would be a good, close match up. The pair played before in the section finals, and one was a section champion while the other was the defending state champion.

It turned out the match was a little more of a route than you'd think. It was a 6-2, 6-1 straight-set win for Amber Washington of Mounds Park Academy. I talked with Amber before and after her match. I found a great anecdote to use for my story lede, and I think it made writing my story a bit easier.

Improvement on day two
It's amazing how much more comfortable I felt after my first day covering the tournament. I also enjoyed being able to watch the entire singles match. It's more fun to be following one match at a time rather than seven.

Covering the tournament was a great experience, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to write about such a great event. I hope I will have the chance to cover more high school tournaments in the future.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hockey season is here

With all this attention on baseball lately, I realized I haven't focused on the Minnesota Wild since the regular season started. Now is a good time to dive in.

Expectations for the Wild aren't exactly high this year. In just his second year behind the bench, it is believed that head coach Todd Richards may be on a short leash in terms of his job security. Last season was not the greatest, but I was willing to give Richards a grace period to implement his new system.

I'm not sure I agree with firing Richards during this season. There's been enough #fire____ topics in Minnesota sports lately with the very-necessary firing of Gophers football coach Tim Brewster, plus the shots being taken at Ron Gardenhire and now Vikings coach Brad Childress.

Let's see where the Wild stand at the end of the season, then it may be time to re-evaluate the personnel, but not before then. For the record, I'm just hoping the Wild can improve off of last year. And no, I don't think they have a good chance to advance to the playoffs (but hey, you never know).

Starting far from home
A lot of excitement has followed the Wild already in its young season. It started with two losses across the pond in Finland. The first game wasn't very good, and the second was the case of a great goaltender in a shootout loss.

Everyone will remember the first game against division-rival Vancouver this season at the Xcel Energy Center. The Wild played extremely well in a 6-2 win, but it was the physical part of the game that told the story.

Getting a little too physical
Canuck Ryan Rypien grabbed a fan that had a seat right next to the visitor's bench area. This was after Rypien reached over an official to punch Brad Staubitz in a skirmish along the Wild bench. It was clear from the beginning Rypien was out of line, with no instigation from the fan.

The NHL suspended the Canuck for six games. I don't have too much fault with this. Although contact with a fan is a big no-no, so maybe 10 games would have made a bigger statement, but at least he didn't skate by with just a couple. The NHL is so inconsistent these days with fines, penalties and suspensions, so this was a pretty decent result.

End of sell-out era
Another item to note, the Wild's consecutive sell-out streak officially died with the second home game this season. Of course, anybody who's been in that building on a somewhat consistent basis should have noticed the huge amount of green seats during games last season. Now it's just official.

On the plus side, if you want tickets to Wild games, they should be more readily available now, unlike in seasons past. I just hope it doesn't get as bad as the Timberwolves games though, where they have trouble giving tickets away.

The Wild are fresh off a home shootout loss to Los Angeles Monday night. After jumping to a 2-0 lead in the first period, they began an all-too-common march to the penalty box. The Kings tied it up and won in a shootout. I'm never very confident when the Wild reach the shootout.

They are now 3-3-2. However, they did win in Edmonton, so they won't have a huge winless streak on the road to start the season like they did last year.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pondering the Twins

I have a few more thoughts on the Twins and their ALDS series loss. Plus, what repercussions this may cause for the future.

Find another excuse
Besides the fact the Ron Gardenhire's post-game comments after Game Three were bordering on Brewster-like, I was also not happy with the same old excuses from the players as to why they lost, again, to the Yankees.

"It's the Yankees... Damn Yankees... We got matched up against the Yankees." Enough. That excuse is no longer valid. During the other lost series of this decade? OK. But not this time. This year was supposed to be different, and the Twins had so much going for them. Yes, New York has a dominant team, but you can't keep hanging your hat on that one element.

And they say the Yankees aren't in their heads? Yeah, right. This just proves to me that they are. The New York starting pitching was not so unhittable in this series as the Twins made it seem. The Yankees aren't up there whiffing at pitches, hitting into double plays or failing to get the ball out of the infield. That's all on the Twins lack of production at the plate.

They have to find a way to beat the Yankees, and getting behind the eight ball mentally because of who your opponent happens to be is just not going to fly.

This was "the year"
Was the 2010 season a failure for the Twins? It's hard to group the whole season on three games, but at the very least it was a huge disappointment. The Twins opened up their new, beautiful ballpark which seemed to be invincible to bad weather this year. They went out and got some free agents during the off season and have spent more money than in years past.

The expectation, proclaimed by the Twins themselves, was to get beyond the first round of the playoffs, and possibly to the World Series. They overcame huge adversity early with the loss of All-Star closer Joe Nathan to Tommy John surgery, and then losing Justin Morneau for the second half to a concussion.

They won 94 games on their way to a sixth division title since 2002. They had all the cards in their favor for the heading into the postseason. So what happened?

It wasn't just the fact that they again were bounced out in the first round. It was more the way they lost. Giving the Yankees a run for their (big) money in four or five games would have been an improvement from years past. It would have broken the losing streaks while being marked as less of a failure than a sweep.

Weak division and a crossroads
I've said it before: The Twins play in a weak division. Kansas City has been a great team to beat up on this decade, and now Cleveland is also on the down swing. It's great you can dominate your own division, Twins, but if you can't beat the AL East teams and show up to play postseason baseball, what's the point?

I think this series is a big crossroads for Twins fans. My friend John wrote something interesting as a Facebook comment:

This is a give-take relationship. I am still a hardcore fan, but I need to see some effort in return. That was pathetic.

I never thought of it that way, but it's something to think about. Why get all excited, spend the time and money, all season long when you pretty much know what will happen once October hits? Until the Twins prove they are capable of winning even one game in the postseason, it should be assumed that they are not up to the task.

Fire Gardy? Not yet.
Many were asking for Gardy to get the axe after the sweep. I'm not ready to go there yet. I don't think you can point the finger at him for the Twins not getting it done at the plate. He has led the team to six (weak) division titles. It's just getting that next step that's hard.

Also, look at how well new management has worked for the Wolves and Wild right now. The Wolves are a joke, and the Wild are headed in a downward spiral. If they don't get off to a good start, second-year coach Todd Richards could get canned.

If anything, I think the Twins need something to light a fire under 'em. Something so they'll have that extra kick to make it to the next level.

Long winter
While there is still baseball to be played in 2010, the Twins' role is done. It should be an interesting off season as far as the business side goes. Plus, we'll still be keeping an eye on the health and progress of both Nathan and Morneau.

I'm not sure how next season will shake out. And if they reach another division championship, I'm really not sure how I will feel in the postseason.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Twins get swept, time to reflect

Well, another Twins season came to an abrupt and disappointing end at the hands (or rather, bats and fastballs) of the much-hated New York Yankees. This 2010 postseason exit for the Twins hurts more than the other first-round blanks from the past decade because many thought this was "the year."

Disappointment, frustration, anger, bitterness, sadness. Those are all some emotions I'm sure Twins fans were feeling during the three-game embarrassment that the hometown boys tried to pass off as Twins baseball.

I have given myself a few days to digest the losses and the aftermath, trying to figure out what needed to be said - and there is a lot. Some of it will be blunt. Of course, unless you are a true optimist, you might also agree with some of these not-so-flattering thoughts.

It's a bad trend
Now it's time to reflect. The Twins were swept out of the ALDS yet again. We've all heard the numbers. An 0-11 postseason-losing streak. Three ALDS sweeps in a row. The horrible 18-57 under Ron Gardenhire record against the New York Yankees. Jason Kubel's embarrassingly-abysmal .069 career postseason batting average. The list goes on.

The bottom line for me in this series was the lack of offensive production. Hitting .216 as a team and going 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position won't help you win many ball games.

You can't score a couple of runs a night against the Bronx Bombers and think you'll have a shot at winning. It just won't happen. You can look at the lineup and pick any one of the Twins hitters for not getting it done, although some stick out more than others.

Danny Valencia is the only guy I'm willing to give a free pass to because he's a rookie. I have been impressed with him stepping up this season, in what will hopefully be the everyday third baseman the team has been looking for since the Corey Koskie era.

Two below-average performances
The two guys I was more disappointed with were Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel. Mauer knocked a couple of singles to the outfield, but didn't do much more than that. He was highly scrutinized for needing to step up to carry the team as a postseason leader, either with his bat or by breaking out of his introverted shell.

Then there's Kubel. He went 0-for-8 this series, and is hitting .069 for his career in the postseason (2-for-29). That's pathetic. Not that anyone else was lighting things up, but I mean, come on. At least Michael Cuddyer and Orlando Hudson hit a couple long balls. Denard Span led off with a couple hits, and even Valencia coaxed a walk that resulted in a tying run.

But Kubel? Zero production. It's just ridiculous. I just can't get past .069. That's bad.

What did you say?
Another thing that worried me during the series was the stuff I was reading in the newspaper. Players like Mauer and Kubel were asked about stepping up; somebody needs to be that postseason hero.

Instead of a player owning up and taking responsibility for the comatose offense, they seemed to pass the buck. Players were getting quoted making generalizations, saying there's a lot of talent in their clubhouse, and any one of the guys could be the one to step up and be the hero/leader.

That didn't sit well with me. Guys should have enough fire and will to win to say, "Yeah, I need to step up my game. I want to be that guy who gets the bats going for my team." I get they're a team with talented guys, but where's the passion? Take it upon yourself to get the big hit.

ALDS Twins versus Yankees recap - Game Three

Game Three - Yankees 6, Twins 1 - Series is officially over

Well, I'd say Game Three was the worst for the the Twins. Just one run (coming in the eighth inning) and seven total hits for the night in their last game of the 2010 season. Just an abysmal effort. Fortunately for me, at this point of the series I was already a bit past the bitter station, and I had moved on to the "over it" station on the postseason train.

Hitting was once again the biggest problem. The regular lineup for the Twins made Yankees starter Phil Hughes look like a Cy Young candidate. He threw perfectly the first time through the lineup, and faced the minimum through four (after Denard Span's lead-off single was quickly negated by Orlando Hudson's double-play ball).

It was just depressing. The Twins were consistently swinging and missing on 91, 92 mph pitches. I'm not a huge expert when it comes to pitching, but I didn't feel like those pitches and their speeds were insurmountable. I mean, it wasn't like the guy was throwing 99-mph heat up there.

You're major league hitters, make some contact with the baseball, preferably something that makes it out of the infield.

Total Twins hit count: 7. LOB (left on base) count: 7.

On the pitching side for the Twins, young Brian Duensing failed to make it through the fourth inning. But you know, the hitting for the Twins was so bad, I really don't hold him responsible. It's ironic though because he seemed to take the loss pretty hard, as did Carl Pavano in Game Two.

When the Twins finally got their one run in the eighth, with a couple of hits, it was very much too little, too late. You can't wait until the end of the game to start putting runs on the board, especially in New York. There was something one of the TBS announcers said that stuck with me, saying Twins hitters were "due."

Yeah, they're all "due," but they're not "dueing" anything.

At one point of frustration with the Twins lineup, I suggested mixing it up. Why not swap out players for the three utility infielders on the postseason roster, Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and outfielder Jason Repko.

None of the regulars were getting it done at the plate, so why not try something different? They might surprise you. What have you got to lose? (except the game, series and pride)

Twitter is good therapy
Shifting gears a bit, I'll once again plug how great Twitter and sports fit together. During Game Three I probably Tweeted about 35 times. I even started a hashtag - #postseasondepression as the game got deeper. It's just nice to share your thoughts with Twins fans and the media who cover them.

The loss didn't seem to hurt as bad because half of my attention was really focused on Twitter, rather than hanging on every at-bat during the game. It really is a great outlet to vent, plus get some insider information during the game - like learning that the classy New York faithful were chanting and taunting Span while he was in center field.

Same old story
By game's end, the result was the same. The Twins losing to the Yankees in three straight games, and not really showing up to play their best baseball in any of them. I won't get in to all the statistics, but the numbers in most categories for the Twins when facing the Yanks are not good.

Watching the Yankee celebration was quite telling - because there was no celebration. They shook hands on the field like it was a normal game, because their competition had failed to make the series competitive.

Handshakes said it all.

ALDS Twins versus Yankees recap - Game Two

Game Two - Yankees 5, Twins 2

So if I thought Game One was a must-win, it goes without saying that Game Two at Target Field was a must-win-otherwise-it's-over game.

If there is someone out there confident enough to think the Twins could win three straight against New York, with two games in the Bronx, then they have to be lying. While it's true that anything can happen in sports, and it's not over until it's over, holding that optimism just seems unrealistic.

Gardy sent veteran and rotation-stabilizer Carl Pavano to the hill, a former Yankee. Just like Liriano, he really didn't have that poor of a showing. It also wasn't a huge Yankee blow-out, just a handful runs.

The call that wasn't
Probably the turning point (or at least the most-talked-about moment) of the game came in the seventh inning when veteran Lance Berkman was at the plate for the visitors with two strikes in the count.

Then there was a pitch that caught a very large portion of the plate, according to booing fans, the TBS pitching graphic and Orlando Hudson, who apparently was jumping up and down in the infield after home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt failed to ring up the Yankee.

The very next pitch, Berkman hit an RBI double to center to break a tie game. The Yanks never looked back. Gardy made a trip to the mound, not to change pitchers, but to calm Carl down (according to the skipper). When Wendelstedt made the "break it up" walk out to the mound, Gardy was vocal about the non-call.

As has happened many times, Gardy got tossed as he tried to plead his case in true Gardy fashion. These two guys have a history together, and it's not good at all. Plus, managers Bobby Cox (Atlanta) and Joe Maddon (Tampa Bay) got tossed last week as well. This coming after five years of no postseason managerial ejections.

It hasn't been a banner year for the umpires in the postseason, just like in 2009. But that's another topic for another time.

Bad luck, but still...
Now, I am in no way saying that the Twins lost Game Two because of a very, very questionable call from behind the plate. Their bats were very silent for the entire series, so there's one of the biggest reasons for their fate.

But when I'm on Twitter seeing many media personnel and fans express their complete disagreement with the call, you know it's a bad one. Still, it's not enough to blame the loss on. You've got to support your pitching staff with more than two runs and six hits.

Total Twins hit count: 6. LOB (left on base) count: 3.

Then it was off to the Big Apple for some really must-win games. Going down 0-2 to the Yanks - it's familiar, and yet, another way to say "series over."

ALDS Twins versus Yankees recap - Game One

Game 1 - Yankees 6, Twins 4

The anticipation for Game One of the ALDS at Target Field last Wednesday was high. I was pretty pumped for the Twins to kick things off in the postseason; so many things just felt different about it this time. My friend Cassie and I even went to Billy's in St. Paul so we could take in the game in a fun atmosphere.

I was still a little nervous for Francisco Liriano, who was making his first career postseason start. As it turned out, good news on that front. He did not struggle early, which was the concern. He did well until he hit a wall in the sixth inning. He saw the 3-0 Minnesota lead shrink down to a 4-3 deficit.

The biggest blow came off the bat of former Detroit Tiger Curtis Granderson, who struggled at the plate this season until about mid-August. He hit what first appeared to be a catchable fly ball to right center, but instead it hit off the wall for a triple.

Cuddy starts the scoring
It looked to be a good start for the hometown boys when Michael Cuddyer (the only current Twin to have played on all the postseason teams of this decade) smashed a two-run homer to the pine trees in center field. Jim Thome was on base after getting plunked on the hands by the big ace CC Sabathia.

Even when they went down 4-3, they came right back the next inning to tie the score (by resisting the swinging temptation) with a bases-loaded walk. But that score was once again short lived. Jesse Crain came on in relief and watched as Mark Teixeira hit a two-run shot down the right-field line, just barely staying fair.

That was the game's difference.

Need to cash in on opportunities
Of course, that's not to say that the Twins didn't have their chances. The most notable one sticking out in my mind was J.J. Hardy striking out with the bases juiced in the sixth inning. He helped Sabathia get out of a jam by swinging and missing when the big man was having trouble finding the strike zone.

Total Twins hit count: 8. LOB (left on base) count: 10.

Must-win? Yes, it was.
Looking back, I would say that Game One was the best one for the Twins. They got progressively worse as the series went on. At least the first game had that familiar feel of a close game, with the Yankees always managing to get that extra boost to come out victorious.

Game One was a must-win game for the Twins. Not technically, but it still felt that way, especially being at Target Field. The loss meant that no matter what happened in Game Two, the Twins still needed to find a way to win in New York.

I got most of my frustrations and anger-filled emotions out after the first game. Even though hope wasn't all lost (it was just the first game, after all), it still felt like the Twins were backed into a huge corner. The Yanks do have something to do with that.

If it had been any other opponent for the Twins, I wouldn't have been as worried. But the Yankees are always a dangerous team to try and prevail over, especially for Ron Gardenhire and his team.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Previewing the postseason: Twins versus Yanks... again

Alright kids, here we go. The 162-game (yes, not 163 this year) regular season is complete, and it's time for October baseball. In case you're not aware, here are the Major League Baseball playoff teams.

American League

Minnesota Twins - Central Division champion (and the most important team of interest to this blogger and fan)
New York Yankees - Wild Card
Tampa Bay Rays - East Division champion
Texas Rangers - West Division champion

National League

Atlanta Braves - Wild Card
Cincinnati Reds - Central Division champion
Philadelphia Phillies - East Division champion
San Francisco - West Division champion

While the Twins were the first team in baseball to clinch a division and playoff spot, the other clubs waited a bit longer to decide their fates. The Rays and Yanks both knew they would be in the postseason, but their division and wild card positions weren't decided until the last day of the season.

These two AL East squads played below-average ball in the final stretch of September, very much like the Twins did as they went 3-8 after clinching their title. I think because no team got on a hot streak to end the regular season, this makes it easier to digest Minnesota's recent skid.

It's often not who you play but when you play them. So the fact that the Rays, Yanks and Twins all sort of limped to the No. 162-finish line, that puts them on a more even playing field.

The experts have told the Twins Territory fanatics not to panic with the way the Twins have been playing. I'm hoping they're right. It's a clean slate beginning with the first pitch of postseason play Wednesday, so the boys from Minnie better bring their 'A' games.

Facing an all-too-familiar foe
That's right, the Twins get the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs yet again. This brings back so many bad memories from the past decade that I'm really not going to get into it. We all know the history, the mystique, the winning ways of the defending World Series champion Yankees.

They took out Minnesota in the first round last year in a convincing three-game sweep. The second-half/September miracle run to the Central Division title (capped with that amazing Game 163) had the air taken out of it by the Bronx Bombers. With the big homers they hit against the Twins last year, there's a reason that's their nickname.

The Twins still struggled against the men in pinstripes earlier this spring. Much was made of their series, but one could also be quick to point out that a lot happens over the course of a season, so just because they didn't beat New York earlier, doesn't mean there's no hope now.

Things are different
With history strongly stacked against Minnesota when it comes to the playoffs and the Yankees, it would be easy to give the edge to New York. But there are some differences that might be working in the Twins' favor.

For instance, since the Yanks are the wild card team rather than the division champion, the Twins are the ones with home field advantage for the best-of-five series. This is huge. Playing in Yankee Stadium for games one and two is quite an intimidating and obnoxious (due to Yankee fans) atmosphere. The Target Field faithful will be out in full force to support the Twins in hopes of bringing a 1-1 or, dare I say it, 2-0 lead back to the Bronx.

The Twins also have a very different lineup than last year. Delmon Young has had a huge turnaround this season, producing clutch hits and more than 100 RBI. Danny Valencia has brought his explosive bat up from the minors, and looks to be the team's new consistent third baseman. Jim Thome has added some power, and Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy also weren't with the team last year.

When it comes to bullpens, the Twins have been one of the best in baseball. But they will have to be careful not to throw any cookies to the Yankee lineup. They've proven they don't miss. The Bombers still have a strong team, but it isn't the same team from a year ago either, and age may soon start to play a factor with their top players.

Game on
Because playoff television coverage caters to the big-market Yankees, the Twins are looking at prime-time games for the first round. The game-one first pitch is scheduled for 7:37 p.m. central time on Wednesday for the first playoff game in Target Field history. Game two will be at 5:07 p.m. Thursday.

The pitching match up for game one will be 21-game winner CC Sabathia versus Francisco Liriano (14-10), making his first-ever postseason start. Sabathia has nasty stuff, but Liriano has emerged this year as the dominant pitcher we all thought he was before Tommy John surgery. The only problem will be if Liriano gets a case of nerves; his pitching is strong.

A key to success for the Twins will be keeping their cool on the defensive side, and then getting the bats going. I think it'll be tough to win a game with one or two runs. I'd like to see the Twins put up a few rallies, get some run support for their pitchers (and insurance) so they can stay away from the nail-biters in the late innings.

As far as a prediction goes, I'm not sure I want to offer one. First off because sports are so hard to predict, that's why the games aren't played on paper. But also because I am still a bit superstitious. It's a no-brainer that I want the Twins to finally prove all the critics out there wrong and be able to advance past the Yankees to the AL Championship Series.

If Minnesota fails to make it past the first round, especially if they get swept again, it will be a disappointment. They need to get the New York monkey off their backs and prove they belong deep in the postseason.

Oh, and if Phil Cuzzi is part of the umpiring crew, heaven help the Twins hitters who try to hit a double down the line.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two in a row: 2010 AL Central Division Champions

As I'm sure you know by now, the Minnesota Twins clinched the AL Central Division title. The celebration came late Tuesday night after their 6-4 win over Cleveland, and then another White Sox loss out in Oakland.

It was pretty cool to see former-Twin Craig Breslow pitch the ninth inning, and get Paul Konerko to ground out to second for the out that sealed the deal for the Twins. Thank you Oakland!

Before the game, the players and manager Ron Gardenhire were talking business as usual. Gardy said he would be at home by the time the Sox game ended. Yeah, right. That theory didn't pan out after the Twins comeback-win was final, and the out-of-town scoreboard showed the Sox being down early.

Late-night party
Watching the celebration on FSNorth was pretty cool to see, as it has always been. It was nice that they were able to clinch at home (even if it wasn't on the field) and christen the new clubhouse in Target Field's inaugural season.

It was also nice to see a cluster of fans stick around for the celebration. Slowly, players came out onto the field to high-five fans, and spray them with beverages. Jon Rauch threw a bucket of cold water(?) over the dugout and onto the fans. I wish I could have been there with those true fans.

The night was also special for Gardy because the win marked No. 800 for him in his managing career. He's helped the team to division titles in 2002, '03, '04, '06, '09 and now '10, with just a few ejections along the way. If he doesn't get awarded the Manager of the Year title this year, it'll be a crime.

The work isn't done
Cold-beverage spraying was still going strong around midnight - 12 hours before the afternoon, series finale with the Cleveland Indians. Many thought Wednesday would be a "hangover" game for the Twins, especially with their second-string lineup in their first effort to rest some of the everyday players. But they won 5-1 to improve their record to 92-60.

After Tampa Bay beat the Yankees that evening, the Twins were officially tied with New York for the best record in the American League. That's the new goal the Twins will be working toward in the remaining games, along with getting healthy and mentally prepared for the postseason, in order to secure home-field advantage throughout the AL Championship Series.

With Texas seemingly out of the best-record race, the Twins will be playing either Tampa Bay or New York, based on who finishes as the AL East Champ and the Wild Card. Either way, it'll be a test for the Twins, as they have had trouble with the East teams this season, especially the Yankees.

Since the Twins have become the first team in baseball to clinch a division and playoff berth, it should work to their advantage. Unlike last year with a race to the finish in Game 163, they can have a chance to prepare for the postseason and hopefully make a deeper run into the playoffs.

A few notes
Nick Blackburn made history Wednesday by getting his 10th win of the season. It marked the first time in Twins history when they had six, 10-game winners on their pitching staff.

The 92-60 overall record includes a 52-25 record at Target Field, and a 40-35 mark on the road. In the World Series season of 1987, the Twins went 85-77, and 95-67 in 1991.

Francisco Liriano has been named the Game 1 starter in the AL Division Series. Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn will round out the rotation. Liriano is 14-8 and 6-1 in his past 10 games, but his nerves in big situations make me a little nervous.

The Homer Hankies have returned, this time with the colorful symbol of Minnie and Paul shaking hands that has become the staple logo at Target Field.

It's nice to enjoy another division title, but I think we all know that the goal is bigger than that. Anything less than getting through to the ALCS will be a bit of a disappointment.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Magic Number gets even lower

I was lucky to have the chance to attend another game at Target Field. My good friend Michael was nice enough to invite me (thanks Michael!) to the rubber game on Sunday versus the Oakland A's. It turned out to be a beautiful day, and our seats in the outfield meant we had a great view and the sun in our faces - my red nose is proof of that.

After sweeping the White Sox during the week, on the road, the Twins further extended their AL Central lead, reduced the Magic Number and looked to be in a good position to clinch the Division very soon. Too bad they had a bit of a let-down at home with a 2-1 series loss to the A's.

They went on huge scoring sprees in Chicago, but only managed seven runs in the entire Oakland series. With a total of 26 runs against the Sox, the Twins scored more than seven runs in each game.

Nice day, flat play
Sunday's game was about enjoying some good seats, good weather and good company, since the Twins felt a little flat on the field. Their offense didn't come through, with just a smattering of hits. Their only runs came in the sixth inning with solo blasts to left field coming off the bats of Michael Cuddyer and Jim Thome.

Francisco Liriano got his team behind the eight ball early by giving up three runs in the first inning. That's all it took.

You're outta here!
Manager Ron Gardenhire also got tossed yet again, and I think it was for good cause. A ball was hit to left-center field, which I assumed would be caught since it was just out of my sight line. Apparently, the ball was dropped at some point, so that left Twins base runners at first and second.

Then things got complicated. It was a little confusing at the time (being at the stadium and not having the benefit of a television replay and analyzing the situation), but I guess the umpires first ruled a no-catch and then reversed the call to a catch, saying the ball was dropped on the transfer.

The problem was, both runners were out. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me (and to Gardy, obviously), because since it was first not a catch, that meant the runner on first needed to go to second. Instead, when they reversed it, the base runner was doubled off first.

It's really too bad because that play brought some energy into the crowd, and it could have been a start to a good inning. So instead of two runners on and nobody out, there was nobody on and two outs. Kind of a rally killer.

Missed opportunity
The final score ended up 6-2. What was really a shame about the day was that the Twins could have taken a huge advantage with a win. The Rays and Yankees both lost (after Baltimore came back in the bottom of the ninth and then won in extras against NY), and the Twins are chasing them for the best record in baseball.

Later that night, the Tigers finished off a sweep of the White Sox, lowering the Magic Number again down to 4. But let me tell you, the end of that game was not pretty. The Tigers blew a 7-3 lead in the ninth inning with a horrendous job by the bullpen, then won it 9-7 in 11 innings. The Sox left 18 (maybe more?) runners on base throughout the night.

Regulars are injured, giving newbies a chance
The Twins are also a little banged up at the moment. Sunday's lineup included recent call-up Ben Revere replacing Denard Span in center, and Jason Repko was in for Jason Kubel in right. Both Kubel and Span have a couple nagging injuries, but they should be back soon. Nick Punto also returned to the lineup, in for Orlando Hudson at second base.

Joe Mauer will also be out for a few games now with a knee injury that he apparently suffered during the game. I was wondering why Jose Morales was pinch-hitting for him yesterday. Hopefully Mauer will be back soon; I think he's listed as day-to-day.

Of course, Justin Morneau is still out (as he has been since just before the All-Star break), so Cuddyer is still the fill-in at first base. Most don't think Morneau will play again this season, especially since he wouldn't be able to rehab in the minors, with those seasons having concluded already.

Filling the 3B hole
One guy I'm really impressed with lately has been third baseman Danny Valencia. This is a guy that has been in the Twins minor leagues for a few seasons now. It seems like the Twins were always hesitant to bring him up, saying he still needed more work. Well, with home runs on Friday and Saturday, I'd say he should be up here to stay.

I'm hoping he'll be able to fill the third-baseman void that's plagued the Twins ever since the Corey Koskie-era ended. Valencia is hitting very well right now, so I hope he'll be able to transfer his success over to next season.

On tap for the Twins
The Twins take on Cleveland for a three-game series at home this week before heading off to Detroit for the weekend. The White Sox are facing off in Oakland this week. With the Magic Number at 4, it's possible the Twins would be able to clinch at home, with a some help from the A's.

Let's hope they can get it done so their players can rest up for the postseason, while maybe trying to get their hands on home-field advantage as well. This is all a luxury the Twins didn't have a chance at last year, but this time, things are different. It's time to get some wins and plan for October.

No shortage of sports these days

It's an exciting time for sports right now. The Twins are on the cusp of another AL Central Division title, the Wild are on the cusp of their first preseason game, the Vikings have two losses under their belt, the preps season is well underway, along with fall college sports. So many sports options.

The only thing that's ending is the IndyCar season. With this past weekend's race at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, that leaves the finale in two weeks at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. And just like last year, the overall IZOD IndyCar Series champion won't be decided until after the final checkered flag of the year.

Here's what I'm keeping tabs on right now:

Huskies, Huskies, bark, bark, bark!
- The Andover Huskies football team is 3-0 to start the season after wins over Centennial, Park Center and Northwest Suburban conference-newcomer Armstrong. The real test for the fighting dogs will be when they match up with top 10-ranked Blaine in an away game Oct. 15.

Let's go Tommies!
- In my other alumni category, St. Thomas football is also 3-0 (1-0 MIAC). The Tommies are coming off a huge win over St. Olaf Saturday. They won 49-14 in Northfield, beating the Oles who were also 2-0 going into the conference opener.

It was a little payback for two years ago when the Tommies lost at St. Olaf in six overtime sessions. That loss, and a gut-wrenching one to St. John's, were the only blemishes on the regular season for then first-year head coach Glenn Caruso. That program is flying high.

Let's play hockey
- Hockey gets going again this week as the Wild open the preseason. They play seven games in this country, before jetting off to Finland to open the regular season Oct. 7. I'm not really sure how the second year under coach Todd Richards will shake out.

Right now, I'm just hoping they can improve from last season, have a better start and possibly make a run at getting into the playoffs. I'm not expecting a postseason, but I wouldn't say it's out of the question.

They did pick up a couple veteran players in the off season, including Minnesota-native Matt Cullen. Of course, they also lost the NHL's best enforcer Derek Boogaard, but at least they won't be losing any offense there. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who was out all last season with a concussion, should be back soon, and this time with a special helmet to cushion blows to the head.

The big injury news is lackluster center, James Sheppard. He had knee surgery after an ATV accident when he was training out in Colorado recently. He's listed as being out three to four months, but who knows. It's no secret that I don't see this as much of a loss to the team. I'm sure they can find a way to make up his six points that he contributed last year.

A weak Brew
- Mr. Brewster's Gophers are 1-2, after what many local media personnel are calling the worst loss they've ever seen in a 41-38 punch-in-the-stomach loss to South Dakota a couple weeks ago, and then a more predictable loss to USC.

I haven't been sold on Brewster from the start, really. And it appears that this year many other fed-up fans are getting on the "Fire Brewster" bandwagon. This guy is just nuts. I can't even stand to listen to him in his news conferences or interviews. His extremely positivity is much over the top.

Bad start for Brett
- Oh, and the Vikings are 0-2 with a loss in New Orleans in a rematch of the NFC Championship game, and a turnover-filled home-opener versus the Miami Dolphins. I just think it's funny that when Brett Favre returned (not really a surprise), everyone seemed to think it was a guaranteed ticket back to the Championship, or even the Super Bowl. Those hopes are getting off course in a hurry.

We're gonna win Twins!
- Probably some of the biggest excitement these days has focused around the Twins and their quest for a Division title. They swept the White Sox in Chi-Town last week to essentially stick a fork in their rivals.

Currently, the Magic Number is 4, so the Twins should be able to clinch sometime this week. Unfortunately, it might happen on the road. But how cool would it be to celebrate the clinching at Target Field in its inaugural season? If they can take care of business, then they will be able to rest some players and have them fresh for the playoffs, unlike last year when they played Game 163.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Baseball in football-like weather

"It's a beautiful night for baseball." The now-seemingly-famous words spoken by Fox Sports North announcer Dick Bremer prior to the start of most Twins games played at Target Field. Most of the time this season, that has been the case. But not recently.

Since Ma Nature decided to slap Minnesotans in the face with a sudden jump from summer to instant autumn, going to Target Field within the past week or so has been like going to a football game. Cool temps and wind have ended the great summer evenings of baseball.

I went to the game this past Tuesday with my friend Cassie. We were fortunate enough to see the Twins thump the Kansas City Royals 10-3. Thanks Brian Bannister for your 2-2/3 innings of work, allowing the boys to score six runs in the third.

It was one of those cool evenings, so I came prepared in layers. Long underwear on the bottom, warm socks inside my hikers, a long-sleeved shirt under a hooded sweatshirt covered up by my Twins jersey. I came with mittens and blankets, but fortunately those were unnecessary; we were warm enough with our layers.

Big, offensive night
The Twins took an early lead and never looked back. But the six-run third inning was where the game really got away from KC.

Delmon Young was a big hitter for the night, as he tried to come back to his July ways after his hiccup in August. He was 3-for-4 with four RBI (all coming with two outs). Even lowly J.J. Hardy is breaking out a little bit. He hit his first home run at Target Field this week, and Tuesday he was 1-for-3 with three RBI.

Utility infielder Matt Tolbert also knocked out an RBI-triple (he's making a habit of it recently). We also got to see call-up Ben Revere pinch-hit for the high-socks-wearing Denard Span. Revere struck out, but he also made a nice catch in center field.

Thome's the man
One of the best offensive moments of the evening was when Jim Thome hit his 586th career home run to, where else, the right field platform near the flag pole (which he already hit head-on with a bomb over the weekend). It was a solo shot that was pretty much a no-doubter.

With the blast, he tied Frank Robinson for the No. 8 spot on the career home-run list. This got the crowd to its feet, and Thome was nice enough to come out of the dugout briefly for a well-deserved curtain call.

I gotta say, it's so nice to have him on our team after all the years he spent in Cleveland and Chicago, hitting homers against us. The 40 year old can't run very fast, but that doesn't count in a home-run trot.

Lucky 13 for Liriano
On the pitching side, Francisco Liriano improved to 13-7 with seven strong innings. He gave up seven hits, two earned runs and struck out four on the way to the victory. Glen Perkins pitched the eighth, and I was happy to see Pat Neshek return to the major-league mound for the ninth, although he didn't look too commanding as he walked two and gave up a hit resulting in the third run for KC.

Another highlight of the night was when the Chicago White Sox game went final on the out-of-town scoreboard. Cheers erupted from fans as the Tigers beat the Sox 9-1.

It was a great game and thank goodness the cooler weather didn't get in the way of enjoying it. It didn't hurt that the game didn't drag on for three-plus hours either. Plus, my Target Field record improved to 4-1.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's Magic Number time

As we get deeper into the month of September, Major League Baseball gets more exciting. Races for division titles and playoff spots heat up, or teams that are essentially already in or out of the playoffs begin to coast. Best of all, it's Magic Number time.

I have maintained that I think the AL Central is one of the weakest divisions in baseball. I say that because it's not usually a race to see which team can get 100 wins first, but rather which two teams will be battling for first playing .500 ball.

What have you done for me lately? A lot.
As of late however, the Minnesota Twins have turned things up a notch, and so have the Chicago White Sox since their big run in June that gave them the division lead. The Detroit Tigers looked to be a factor for a bit, but they are 12.5 games back. Kansas City and Cleveland are out of it as well (each about 25 games back), maintaining their division-doormat statuses.

The Twins have been winning lately, and so have the White Sox. How frustrating it must be for the Sox as they went on a seven-game streak but couldn't gain any ground. One-run games are also very present for the hometown boys, which is good only when they are able to end up on the winning end of things.

Joe Mauer and company swept the Texas Rangers during their recent home stand at Target Field - during a first true test of some cold, football-like weather at the outdoor ballpark. If you want to look ahead to the playoffs, the Twins should feel confident going against the Rangers.

Breaking down the Magic Number
Right now, the Magic Number is 17 with the Twins holding a five-game lead over the Sox. Thanks to the Tigers for helping by beating the Whities in their series this week.

If you're unaware, the Magic Number is the combination of Twins wins and Sox losses needed in order for the Twins to clinch the division. The other night the Magic Number was 20, but the Twins beat the Royals and the Tigers beat the Sox, therefore, the Number dropped to 18.

The Twins caught another break Thursday when they gained a half-game without even playing as the Sox lost again. Of course, with a luke-warm Twins loss to the Indians and a Sox comeback win Friday night, the Thursday gain was a wash.

Another positive note is that the Twins are playing over-.500 baseball right now. Their record stands at 83-58. They are also in first place right now, unlike last year where they went on a tear in the last month in order to chase down the Tigers. Of course, this should give the Twins reason to keep pushing for the title and not get chased down themselves.

Race to the finish
Then there's the potential of Game 163. It's certainly not out of the question. I mean, who would have thought there would be two 163s, two years in a row, and that it would be in the same division with the Twins playing in each of them?

A good division or not, the AL Central is competitive on its own level. The problem becomes the postseason, just like last year. It looks as though the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays will be playing in October, and the Twins have struggled against the AL East in general, especially the Yanks.

But for now, let's just take it one game at a time, until the Magic Number reaches zero and Minnesota can hopefully celebrate another Division title.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Marking the end of summer with a Grand Slam

Everyone knows that Memorial Day weekend is known as the unofficial start of summer, and Labor Day weekend is the unofficial end of summer. It seems as though we've reached the latter bookend, which has its good and bad points.

I love summer and the wonderful hot weather it brings, so I'm always sad to see it end. But with big events marking the occasion such as the Minnesota State Fair and tennis' Grand Slam event - the U.S. Open - those are two great reasons to wish for the end of August to come quickly.

September also brings the final month of regular-season baseball, meaning tight divisional races, collapses and title-clinching games. For football lovers out there, the college season has just gotten underway, and the NFL will be starting the regular season soon too.

Injuries and upsets
I wasn't sure how the U.S. Open would go this year. Many of the circuit's top players seemed to have been bitten by the injury bug and many pulled out of the Open. Justine Henin, defending men's champion Juan Martin Del Potro and last year's tirade queen, Serena Williams were three big names not playing on the courts in Flushing Meadows.

There have been some upsets and a few early five-set matches. Last year's young, American sensation, Melanie Oudin, was knocked out in the second round. It was too bad because all the analysts were saying her draw was quite favorable. Plus, I really was on her "believe" bandwagon last year after she pulled out multiple upsets of highly-seeded players.

Another shocker (or maybe not) was ninth-seeded Andy Roddick also being sent packing after losing a four-setter in the second round. I didn't see that match, but apparently he was quite upset about a foot fault and the line judge's mix-up between left and right.

I saw a Tweet later that night where the Tweeter basically said he or she doesn't see Roddick winning another Grand Slam event again. I wouldn't doubt it. It is unfortunate that he is in the middle of the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal era, but Roddick has also been known to choke at times.

Players are still alive
Kim Clijsters, the defending women's champion, is still alive, but she also isn't 100 percent health-wise. She hasn't been challenged too much thus far. I hope she can hold on to make a run back to the final, and this time she can win it outright, instead of by default.

Probably one of the best matches so far was in the men's second round between Sergiy Stakhovsky of Germany and an 18-year-old American named Ryan Harrison. It was a long five-set match that ended in a final-set tiebreaker. Harrison came out on the losing end, but not before winning the crowd over, playing some disciplined tennis and earning three match points before losing 8-6 in the tiebreak.

I'll be keeping Ryan Harrison on my tennis radar for awhile. I hope he and Oudin can continue to improve and bring some success to American tennis. It would be great if these two could prove themselves as worthy competitors, and not just flukes at a Grand Slam on their own soil.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Touring the Brickyard

The fun didn't end after the Honda Indy 200 in Mid-Ohio. On our drive back on Monday, dad and I stopped at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a grounds tour. It was definitely the whipped cream on top of a great racing weekend. I suggest you take the tour if you ever have the chance - it's amazing.

Our tour guide was very friendly and knowledgeable. He said he could tell right away that my dad and I were huge race fans and that it wasn't our first time at Indy. I guess it was our Indy apparel and my dad's IMS credit card that gave us away.

The tour started out on the bus that takes you around the track starting just before the backstretch. The bus speakers began with the "drivers, start your engines" call, live from race day. That alone is enough to get you excited.

It's a learning experience
Being driven on the track is a pretty cool sight. You see things from a different view and try to learn a lot as you try to remember loads of information the guide throws at you. For instance, did you know there's a golf course within the speedway? Or that there were hot air balloon races at Indy way back in the day?

We also heard the stories behind the Brickyard traditions like why the winners drink milk, the kissing of the bricks and the fence climbing. It's hard to take it all in at once, but it's awesome just to be there too.

At the start/finish line, or the yard of bricks, we were able to step out of the bus and onto the speedway. Despite it being an extremely hot day (especially on the asphalt), standing on the track was incredible. We stood on the bricks, took photos and looked around in awe of where we were.

Media Center!
From there we went around to some of the different buildings along the grandstands that face the main straightaway. Among the rooms we ventured to: a hospitality suite, the broadcast booth and... the Media Center!

For anyone who knows me, I'm sure you'll understand why the media center was such a big deal for me. While the rest of the group was standing and listening to the guide, I was walking around with wide eyes like a kid in a candy store, or in this case, a huge race fan/journalist wannabe hoping to someday be able to work in the media room.

The big room was filled with long tables, chairs and televisions for hundreds of media personnel to be in attendance covering some of the biggest events in auto racing. I was a pretty happy camper to have the opportunity to see where the sports journalism magic happens.

Gasoline Alley and a little Jim Nabors
We also went out to see the podium where past winners have stood. And although we didn't get to tour the garage areas in Gasoline Alley on foot, we rode past them in the tour bus. Plenty of photo ops all around.

The tour concluded with the bus bringing us back to the entrance to the museum, with the sounds of Gomer Pyle... I mean Jim Nabors, singing the end of "Back Home Again in Indiana." It was a slightly corny conclusion that still made me smile.

Dad and I then did a walk-through of the museum, since I hadn't been there since I was a youngster. It's a pretty weird walk down memory lane. And to see some of the older cars and their designs, it's a wonder how far cars have come in terms of style and safety.

After a pretty-much mandatory trip to the gift shop, we were on our way. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is amazing. I had an absolute blast.

Turn four, to the main straightaway