Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Time for some racing and baseball

As we make an uncharacteristically-smooth transition from winter into an actual spring here in the Twin Cities, the weather isn't the only thing that's changing. With a new weather season comes a new sports season.

That's right. The Minnesota State High School League wrapped up the winter season of sports this past Saturday with the conclusion of the boy's basketball tournament. The girls competed the weekend before, and the boy's hockey teams the week before that.

Now, we have baseball in the Twins' new home of Target Field just around the corner, a new season of the IZOD IndyCar series has two races under its belt and the Wild, well, let's just look forward to the start of next season. It's another great time to be a sports fan. But then, when is it not?

It's IndyCar - not IRL
First off, I want to make something clear: The IRL (Indy Racing League) no longer exists, at least not with that name. With the merger of Champ Car and the IRL a couple of years ago, the correct term for some of the greatest open-wheel racing out there is the IZOD IndyCar series (or IndyCar series).

Now that the journalistic part of me has cleared that up, let's talk racing. The series opened its season in Sao Paulo, Brazil back on March 14. After yet another first-lap, first-turn incident, this time involving several cars, the race turned out to be a pretty good one. Will Power from the dominant Team Penske got the win.

Round two was scheduled for this past Sunday on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. I took a day-trip to St. Pete last spring during my vacation. It was a week prior to the race, so I made sure to snap a few photos of the concrete barriers and tires waiting to be put into place.

Anyway, the race was postponed until Monday morning due to heavy rains and thunderstorms. The footage of standing water around parts of the track was pretty amazing. Even with rain tires, it would have been hard to run the race.

Pole-sitter Power went on to win this race, becoming the first driver to start the season two-for-two since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001. For Power, that's a great way to come back after an injury last season.

Marco Andretti Examiner
Not only do I get to watch IndyCar races as a racing fan, but I am also now the Marco Andretti Examiner for the Web site Examiner.com. I write three to four short articles per week relating to Marco, and usually the IndyCar series. It's fun to be able to write about a topic I enjoy. Be sure to stop by my Examiner page and read an article or two.

Stick a fork in 'em
I mentioned earlier that it might be good to look toward next season as far as the Wild are concerned. Although they aren't mathematically out of the playoffs yet, they are darn close. A slew of injuries, continued inconsistent play and road struggles, and basically not winning enough games have all been factors.

After the Olympic break until maybe a couple weeks ago, playoff hopes were still semi-alive. But when it became apparent that the Wild were not going to go on an amazing March run, those hopes slowly evaporated.

Work has coincided with the heavy schedule of Wild games lately, so I haven't been able to watch a lot of their games. Some nights, I'm not missing much.

Here's one "highlight" for you though, James Sheppard tallied his first point since December last week. That's right. An offensive player went point-less for months. Yet Richards and the Wild organization continue to put him on the ice. I still don't understand how he has flown under the radar so much when his play is so abysmal. But that's a rant for another time.

Play ball... outdoors
The regular season for Major League Baseball is right around the corner. But baseball as we known it in the Twin Cities is a whole different ball game. To me, it's still almost surreal to think that if I want to go to a Twins game, I'll be going to Target Field rather than the Metrodome. Outdoor baseball will certainly be something to get used to.

I haven't been to Target Field yet, but I have enjoyed looking through my friend's photos on Facebook when they were able to visit during open houses the past couple weekends. I've heard and read great things about the park and the great food. The only problem is that tickets are selling like hotcakes. I'll have to get my hands on some.

So enjoy the weather, the baseball and a fresh start to a new season.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

At last, Mauer's deal is done

Finally! Today the news broke that the beloved, hometown boy Joe Mauer will be wearing a Twins uniform for eight more years. The Twins and Mauer agreed to an eight-year, $184 million deal (which works out to about $23 million per year).

The deal also has a full no-trade clause attached. According to local news station KARE 11, Mauer's contract is the fourth largest in the history of Major League Baseball. Meaning? We're not in a small market anymore, Toto.

Breathing a sigh of relief
This bit of news is a huge weight lifted off the shoulders of Twins fans everywhere. He's an All-Star, MVP, batting champion and one of the best players in the American League. Plus, he's a hometown hero playing in his own backyard. What more can you ask for in a baseball idol?

Mauer's current contract is up at the conclusion of the 2010 season, after which he would become a free agent. The bidding wars between the Yanks and Red Sox would have been fun to watch.

Avoiding baseball suicide
It was widely known that the Twins needed to lock up Mauer before this season got underway, therefore eliminating any contact/trade talk distractions during the season. And of course, letting Mauer walk as a free agent just one year into the Target Field era would have been baseball suicide on the part of the Twins organization.

This deal had to get done. It just had to. So, in one of the most positively-productive offseasons in quite some time, the Twins were proving to fans that they were trying to do everything possible to put a world-series contender on the field. See J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome.

I wasn't worried about the Mauer deal until spring training started. Yes, the regular season wasn't underway yet, but with each passing day, the prospect drew some uneasiness from local media members and social media fan bases. I mean, I feel like the rest of the positive moves this offseason would be forgotten if the Twins went back to their old ways and let Mauer walk. See Torii Hunter and Johan Santana.

According to some sources close to me, if Mauer was not signed by the start of the regluar season, it would be time to say goodbye to him at the end of the 2010.

Hearing the news
Now, I am usually quite "plugged in" these days. In an age with Facebook, Twitter, email and blogs, it's hard to stay away from all the social media sometimes. But today was a beautiful day outside, so I went for a nice long walk with a friend. Afterward, we decided to go out to dinner, so I hopped in my car and pulled out of the driveway.

Star Tribune Preps Leader Michael Rand had been hosting a sports-focused radio show on KSTP1500 that afternoon, so I tuned in on my drive. When the commercial break ended, Rand came on the air and said, "it's a good day if you're a Joe Mauer fan or a Twins fan." (Or something like that.)

I was pretty much speechless. No, really. I was just so surprised that the deal was done, I didn't know what to say (to myself, alone in the car). It was a great feeling knowing he was going to be sticking around for years to come.

Nathan's overshadowed news
This Mauer hoopla positively overshadows the earlier news of the day that everyone was expecting: Joe Nathan is done for the year. No one following his recent injury saga should be falling out of their chairs at this announcement.

Nathan tested his arm today while playing catch with pitching coach Rick Anderson. After just 10 minutes, Nathan made the decision to have season-ending Tommy John surgery to repair the injured ligament in his right elbow.

He is the Twins closer who leads the majors with 246 saves since 2004. The void he leaves will be big, and now we will wait to see if the Twins decide to replace him with a current member of the bullpen, or look elsewhere and make a trade.

We'll have to see how the closer situation plays out, but right now, all the focus is on Mauer. This St. Paul native, Cretin-Derham Hall graduate and phenomenal baseball player will be a Twin through 2018. How cool is that?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tourney time in the State of Hockey

Minnesota is dubbed the State of Hockey. No other time throughout the calendar year is this more true than during the four-day boys high school state hockey tournament. The state-tournament tradition is what the State of Hockey is all about.

This year marked the 10th one at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. As the last few years of the tournament have gone by, I have grown more and more interested in watching.

One of these times I'll have to go down there myself because the atmostphere looks electric. I was hoping to make it down there to see my Andover Huskies this year, but despite having their best team in school history and a Mr. Hockey candidate in Cal Decowski, they lost in the playoffs to eventual section champion Duluth East.

The love continues to grow
My fondness of the tourney grew closer toward obsession stage this year; all I wanted to do was watch every game in its entirety. I had a chance to watch a lot of Class 1A hockey on Wednesday, but was a little disappointed with the results. Three of the four games were blowouts, the biggest being dealt by Breck with an 11-1 route of New Ulm.

I also watched the afternoon games Thursday when the big schools of Class 2A got things going. I was sad to see the No. 3 seed, and Andover's conference rival, Blaine get knocked out 2-0 by unseeded Apple Valley. I jokingly blamed the loss on a "Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year" curse, as Nick Bjugstad of the Bengals earned that honor. Blaine also lost in the consolation round.

Semifinals, more minutes than expected
Play got interesting during Friday's semifinal rounds. Warroad advanced to the Class 1A championship game after an emotional-roller-coaster ending against Mahtomedi. After seeing a two-goal lead disappear in the final period, Mahtomedi appeared to score the game-winner (breaking a 6-6 tie) as regulation time expired. As the referee signaled it was a goal, a championship-like celebration took place on the ice for the Zephyrs.

But upon the video review, it clearly showed the puck was not in the back of the net as the clock hit 0.0. The game would be decided in overtime. It took just over a minute into the extra session for Warroad sophomore Jared Thomas to score the most important goal of his career and send his team to the championship game.

Instant classic: Hill-Murray vs. Tonka
The overtime drama did not stop there. As Edina coasted to the 2A championship game with a 2-1 win over Apple Valley in the early game, Hill-Murray and No. 1 seed, the heavy favorite to win it all, Minnetonka took to the ice. Each team tallied a goal in the first and that's where the scoring would stay until much, much later.

In a game that featured no penalties, you could tell as it went on that these teams were evenly matched. Watching in the third period, I just got this feeling that the game had the potential to go on awhile. Call it a gut feeling.

The contest remained tied after one overtime. Then two. Then three. (The first overtime period is seven minutes, then ice resurfacing before a 17-minute period and the process repeats.) In the fourth overtime, it was another sophomore, Erik Baskin of Minnetonka, who sent the Skippers to the championship with a wrap-around goal at 2:31 of the fourth overtime. 2-1 final.

In a day that saw record attendance numbers at the X (more than 11,000 for the Class 1A games, and more than 19,000 for 2A), fans were treated to a real classic. Had the game prolonged about seven minutes more, it would have set the record for the longest game in tournament history. I know Edina was hoping that would have happened.

State champions
On championship Saturday, it was Breck who prevailed to win back-to-back titles, becoming the first team in Class 1A to do so, and the first overall since Bloomington Jefferson in 1992-94. The outcome was unfortunate for opponent Hermantown, which often outplayed the Mustangs throughout the day, and scored the first goal of the game.

It was a deflection shot scored with 100 seconds left in regulation that gave Breck the 2-1 victory.

Now, while I believe most of the consolation and third-place games have been decided, we just await the 2A championship this evening. Since I have other plans, I have the DVR set up to record the last of the 2010 tournament. See, I told you I'd edged closer to obsession.

Venting sidebar...
Note: You'd think at some point the MSHSL and the tournament would figure out the timing of the games. The quarterfinal games are all scheduled two hours apart (11 a.m., 1 p.m in the afternoons; 6 p.m., 8 p.m. in the evenings). I'd like to point out that this does not work, especially in the quarters when the entire roster gets introduced.

Games aren't even done in two hours, and then you have to factor in the warm-up time for the next two teams coming in. There's a simple solution: Schedule the games three hours apart. I just had to get that off my chest.

I scanned through the 2A championship in the wee hours of the morning today. Edina scored in the first minute of the game and never looked back. Tonka scored a couple quick goals at the start of the third period, but they couldn't overcome a 4-0 deficit. Edina took home its first state championship since 1997 with a 4-2 victory.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The most dreaded words for a pitcher: Tommy John

Unless you've been living under a rock in the Minnesota sports world over the past couple of days, you know that Joe Nathan's pitching future is in jeopardy.

He is a four-time All-Star and has been the closer for the Twins ever since getting traded here in the A.J. Pierzinski deal back in 2004. He has 246 saves since that year and is known for what closers do best, closing out baseball games in the ninth inning.

Nathan came out of a spring training game over the weekend after feeling some discomfort during his 20-pitch outing. He then flew from Fort Myers to Minnesota for a "precautionary" MRI. Of course, no one from the Twins was speculating until they knew the results of the scan. But I'm not sure anyone really thought they'd be looking Tommy John surgery in the face.

Nathan has a torn ligament in his right elbow. From what I've read, it's a recent injury and nothing that lingered after he had surgery in his elbow after last season. The plan now is for Nathan to rest for a couple weeks, then try pitching through the pain a bit. But there also isn't a lot of optimism out there among beat writers, bloggers and even the Twins clubhouse.

Worst-case-scenario injury
Tommy John surgery is probably one of the worst injuries in baseball. It officially knocks you out for a season, or maybe more. And then when you do finally return to action on the mound, you're often not the same pitcher you once were. Just ask Joe Mays, Pat Neshek and Francisco Liriano.

But the concern is much greater in Nathan's case, due to the fact that he's 35 years old. The thought has already been thrown out there that this injury and accompanying surgery could be career ending for the Twins closer. Right now, I'd say that's the case. Even if he comes back to pitch, it will not be the same Joe Nathan out there with his signature horse-like deep breath.

This is big and damaging news for a ball club that had one of the most positively-productive offseasons in a long time, and is trying to make a run deep into the postseason. So it just figures that they'd get hit with something like this.

There seems to be some panicking out there in the blogs and such. Everyone is scrambling to think of who should be Nathan's replacement. Of course, it's one step at a time, but you have to be prepared too. No one in the Twins organization has anywhere near the closer experience that Nathan holds, but this is a perfect time for someone to step up and earn it.

Joe's replacement
I'm not really sure who would be a good fit right now. I loved watching Neshek with his stuff and unique delivery before he had his surgery. He still hasn't pitched in a major-league game since then. It'd be great to see him pre-surgery as a closer, but I'm obviously dreaming. He needs to get back into the swing of the bullpen first.

Tattoo-man Jon Rauch is the Twin with the most save experience, and right now he's looking like the most logical candidate. I don't really have a problem with that at this point. Honestly, I don't think I've seen him pitch enough to get a good feel for him.

There's also Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Jose Mijares. I'm not a fan of going with these options. Crain and Guerrier work fine as set-up men and it should stay that way. Mijares has already earned a strike or two with his team after getting involved in throwing at batters last fall, and then having Delmon Young blame him for a retaliation toss, plus he was late arriving to spring training due to a Visa issue.

Some have mentioned Liriano's name as an option for the ninth-inning man. I don't even want to hear it. This guy seems like he's in his head too much as it is. I don't know if he could handle the mental aspect of the closer role. Plus, he still has to prove his worth after a medicore showing last season, and then a stellar performance during Dominican winter ball.

There's also the idea being bounced around about trading for an arm outside the organization. I'm not really on board with this theory yet either. Especially when a certain contact for a certain Cretin-Derham Hall alum isn't getting done. Let's just see what Nathan can do, and/or what our bullpen can do, before we go looking for help.

All we can do as Twins fans is sit back, relax, wait for Target Field to open and not panic about the Nathan situation. Now the Mauer situation, that's a different story. No contract done by opening day and I'll be ready to hyperventilate.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Hitting it big

Now that the Olympics are officially over, it's about time to shift the focus to March Madness, MLB spring training and NHL playoff pushes. Plus, the dead of winter is slowly slipping away and spring is on the horizon. What could be better?

Last weekend was a good sports weekend for me. Friday night I visited my old stomping grounds at Andover High School and watched the female Huskies beat Anoka 66-28. Although the game was somewhat of a mismatch (the lady Tornadoes were only victorious once this season), it was still a fun game to watch.

I followed that up on Saturday by going down to watch a section semifinal boys hockey game at Braemar arena between Bloomington Jefferson and Burnsville. This was a special game for me because I was there officially as a member of the Star Tribune staff, all set to write a short summary for the roundup.

Along with the great turnout of fans in the rink, I was treated to a great hockey game. Jefferson seemed to have the upper hand in domination and pressure throughout the game, but Burnsville commanded the lead on the scoreboard for most of the contest.

It took overtime to decide who would move on to play at the Target Center for the section final, and Jefferson came away with a 4-3 win.

I interviewed a coach and the winning goal scorer, then headed back to the newsroom for my shift. I surprised myself with how quickly I was able to put together a couple hundred words about the game and get it sent off to the copy desk.

The result was my very first byline in the Star Tribune. Needless to say, I am very proud of that roundup box in the bottom right-hand corner of the Preps sports section from the Feb. 28 Sunday paper.

A golden finish

Last Sunday afternoon was a time to kick back and watch the much-hyped, much-anticipated gold medal men's Olympic hockey game between Team USA and Canada.

As Star Tribune Minnesota Wild beat writer Michael Russo pointed out, it's not often that games of this magnitude live up to all the hype, but this one did. It was a great game to cap off the entire tournament in Vancouver which was host to some spectacular hockey.

Once Canada scored the first goal, the odds and statistics were stacked against USA. Canada was undefeated when scoring first, and it marked the first time that USA had trailed during the tournament. Plus, how likely was it that USA would be able to beat Canada twice in one week?

It was a good game, even though USA had to come from behind. The final minute of play in regulation ticked down under the 30-second mark, and I began to lose hope for the boys in blue. But lo and behold, they would not give up that easily. Minnesota boy Zach Parise, who had been a star throughout the Games, punched in a puck to tie the score at two apiece with 24.4 seconds remaining.

For me, it was the most exciting moment of the game. To send the game into overtime against an all-star caliber team like Canada, was pretty amazing. I think with the dramatic way in which it went into overtime like that, it lessened the blow when Canada's golden boy Sidney Crosby won the game with a shot through the five-hole on Ryan Miller.

Note: Miller got a well-deserved night off from his Buffalo Sabres goaltending duties in the first game after the Olympic break, but he received a standing ovation from the Pittsburgh crowd - it was an even bigger welcome than they gave Sid the Kid. I was glad to hear that Miller was getting the recognition he deserved after such a magnificent performance during the Olympic games. He was named the MVP.

Hold your head high
That gold medal game was one for the books. It even received record ratings in the United States. I'm glad to see so many people tuned in to watch hockey, a game that can be listed as No. 4 in the list of "big four" professional sports (football, baseball, basketball).

Team USA accomplished a lot with its silver medal, even though at the time they would have given anything to wear gold. The young team came into the Games with some low expectations from critics. Some didn't even think USA would medal.

It is quite remarkable how far they came, especially beating Canada a week before the Olympic finale. If you compare lineups, there almost is no comparison. Canada is filled with heavy hitters like Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash and, of course, Sidney Crosby.

What's next?
This gold-medal game might have to hold us for awhile as far as the Olympic games are concerned. The 2014 Games are in Sochi, Russia. The NHL and the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia do not have a good relationship. This means that NHL players and the Olympics may be just a memory in four years.

I really hope this doesn't happen. Nothing is for sure yet, so I'll keep my fingers crossed that all the great hockey from the Vancouver Olympics will carry over to 2014.