Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Controversy should lead to consistency in IndyCar

Frequent readers of this blog may notice I haven't written a ton about the IZOD IndyCar Series, although I am a big follower of the series. I get most of the IndyCar writing out of my system through my Marco Andretti Examiner articles on Examiner.com.

But I thought I would jump over to the blog to give my thoughts on the controversial and much-talked-about Honda Indy Edmonton race from Sunday. If you didn't see the race, take a look at this video. The first 93 of 95 laps didn't seem to matter, it was just the final restart and ending that became the focus.

Basically, Helio Castroneves was leading on the last restart, he went on the inside of the first turn with his Penske teammate Will Power on the outside. Castroneves was penalized for blocking Power, resulting in a drive-through penalty. Since it was almost the end of the race, Helio took the checkereds anyway, but Scott Dixon (who was in second) was the winner.

Castroneves was officially placed in 10th, behind the last driver who finished on the lead lap.

Control your emotions
Afterward, Helio got out of his car and starting screaming, gesturing at and grabbing collars of any race official who happened to be in his path. Some referred to this as passion, but I think his actions were uncalled for. Yes, you thought you got screwed, but cool your jets and get your head together before you make a spectacle of yourself. (He later apologized.)

Did Paul Tracy make a huge scene after the 2002 Indy 500 was taken away from him and Helio came out victorious? No, I don't think so. And that's a race where you really should expect to see fireworks for miscues.

Following the rules
The gist of the rule for blocking in a corner is that a driver can only be on the inside if he or she is trying to overtake another for position. The driver also must hold the same line. In this case, Helio took the inside when he was already leading, therefore blocking Power.

I'm not the best judge of the rule, that's the job of the officials, but I will say I've seen worse moves than that have no repercussions. From what I've heard and read, this rule is talked about at all the driver's meetings, and many of the driver's agree with the call that was made. Even Power admitted he was being blocked.

Slippery slope
What's important going forward is that IndyCar doesn't fall down the slippery slope of inconsistency that the NHL has taken (not having the same measuring stick for penalties, suspensions and fines). Since this call was made (the right one, in many views) that essentially changed the race result, the series needs to be consistent in the races to come.

That means if a driver looks to be blocking in any way according to the rules, assess the penalty - no matter when during the race or which driver it is. The key is consistency. Drivers need to be responsible enough to have clear knowledge of the rules so they know their limits on the race track.

So, to sum up: Helio's tantrum was a bit much (But on the plus side, it helped give the series some publicity, even if it was negative.), it appears the correct call was made regarding the blocking penalty and series president Brian Barnhart needs to be careful and consistent to avoid any further controversy.

I'd get into the Penske/Ganassi series dominance and the head-shaking mess that is Milka Duno, but those are two other cans of worms.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Walking off the Sox

Some of the most exciting wins in baseball are walk-offs. It doesn't really matter whether it's the bottom of the ninth or the 15th. For at least one game it isn't impossible to comeback from a deficit and beat the odds to win.

I had the privilege Sunday of witnessing maybe the most exciting victory in Target Field's young history. The Twins came back to beat the division-leading Chicago White Sox 7-6 and grab a series win to open second-half play. It was a game that was filled with a variety of baseball elements, but let's start with the good stuff.

Knocking around the closer
So many things about the way the Twins won in that last half inning of play are astounding. They came into the inning facing closer Bobby Jenks, who looked to get the save with a 6-3 lead. A couple of walks, hits, two runs and no outs later, the Twins had chased Jenks to the showers and had brought the game within reach at 6-5.

Sergio Santos was the relief, but he wasn't much better. He also did not record an out as the base-runner parade continued for the Twins. He walked a batter on five pitches to load the bases for Delmon Young, who had already hit a two-run homer to the left-field bleachers in the second.

Nick Punto was the pinch runner at third, and Michael Cuddyer was checked in at second as the potential winning run. It didn't take long for Young (who had struck out twice after his blast) to hit a single to center. The 40,000-plus crowd erupted as Punto came in to tie the game. But the play wasn't over yet.

Where was he throwing that ball?
I looked to third base to see if Cuddy was being held or not. It looked like he was going to be stopped, but then Alex Rios made an air-mail throw into the infield that went sailing to the Sox dugout. With that costly throwing error (the only one of the game), Cuddy easily scored the winning run and the celebration ensued.

It was an amazing victory for the Twins who were able to grab three of four games against the hated-rival Sox. Rallies like that against a tough closer are pretty rare. All the more reason for fans to stick around for all 27 outs. I am definitely not a believer in leaving the game early, no matter the lead difference. Is it really that important to beat traffic?

Still trouble for Blackburn
Nick Blackburn started the game, and he didn't have the best outcome, but it wasn't horrible either. At the start, he looked like he had turned a corner from his previous bad outings. He gave up a few hits and just a couple runs through five innings.

But he hit a huge wall in the sixth and wasn't able to get an out. The final dagger was a two-run, RBI single to give the Sox the lead at 4-3. At this point, Brian Duensing came in from the pen and ended up pitching the rest of the way. He also had a rough start as Chicago went on to bat around in the sixth and scored a total of four runs in the inning.

The game went on knotted at 6-3 until the very end. After the Twins wasted a couple opportunities in the later innings, it looked like the lack of clutch hitting would be contributing to a loss. When all was said and done, both teams pounded out 16 hits.

But the hometown boys also left 10 men on base, which explains the no-clutch situation. With all those hits, you'd expect more runs than there were.

Another good day at the ball park
I had a great time in my third visit to Target Field. My mom and I went, and this time our seats were in the left field bleachers (actual bleachers, which is kind of cool), thanks to a pair of tickets from my mom's bowling buddy. We were seated right next to the bullpen, which was a different but neat perspective.

The weather was once again beautiful, which helped make up for the fact that I was sold a burned corn dog (I got another one.), and that the klutzy lad behind us accidentally splashed his Sprite on my mom and me. We also saw a friend, so that was a nice surprise too.

But all in all, a great day and a great ball game. When we arrived at Target Field and were walking on the plaza, I spotted a $20 bill on the ground. I said, "It must be my lucky day." I guess maybe that luck rubbed off on the Twins too.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Limping into the break

While the Twins as a team haved limped into the All-Star break, I think for the starting pitchers it's more like they've gone into a coma. Instead of a first-place lead in the weak AL Central Division, the Twins stumbled toward the break and now sit in third place with a 46-42 record.

They have a losing record on the road, which is no wonder considering how poor the starters have thrown the ball when away from Target Field. Nick Blackburn needs a stint in Rochester to get his stuff together. Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano have all had some bad outings recently. Carl Pavano and his still-present mustache seems to be the only reliable one.

I even saw a stat thrown out on Twitter pointing out that only four teams in the majors have won fewer games than the Twins since June 1: Baltimore, Toronto, Washington and Pittsburgh - all non-contending teams that the Twins should be embarrassed to be in the same category with.

This isn't just a little slump; it's a big concern. Losing series after series will only lower your position in the standings. A big problem lately has been pitching. As good as their lineup is, they don't have an ace on the mound. And it's like the common saying: Good pitching beats good hitting.

Good for Young, bad for Cuddy
One bright spot this season has been the offensive stylings of outfielder Delmon Young. To his credit, he got in shape for the season and is producing results. We're finally seeing the benefit of the trade that brought him here from Tampa a couple years ago.

Young is an (often clutch) offensive weapon for the Twins right now. It's a good thing too, because someone has to step up for Mauer's "slump" of hitting below .300. Unfortunately, Young still isn't getting it done in left field. But I guess his offense can make up for the fact that his fielding could use some work.

Turning to a strong outfielder, apparently Michael Cuddyer is turning into the next Denny Hocking. In my eyes, Cuddy is an outfielder with a great arm. But with interleague play in June, boosting the lineup and filling in for the injured, he's the utility infielder getting time at third and first base (when Justin Morneau is out).

I remember his time as a regular at third base a few years ago, and I wasn't impressed. His arm is too strong to suffocate in the infield. It's great that he wants to be a team player, but his talents belong in right field.

Maybe the worst sports injury ever - the concussion
On the injury front, Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy are both back in the infield, but Morneau may be in some trouble after taking a knee to the head in a slide collision in Toronto last week. He is sidelined with concussion symptoms, not a first occurance for the first baseman who played hockey in his youth.

His health will certainly be a thing to keep an eye on because concussions are just so unpredictable. Just ask Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Corey Koskie. Morneau already missed the entire weekend series in Detroit, and he will be forced out of the All-Star game where he and Joe Mauer were supposed to be starters.

But the All-Star game is another issue altogether.

With the collapse before the break, stats are being thrown out there saying the Twins are a second-half team. Maybe that's true, but if you don't have starting pitching, you'll be going nowhere fast.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Upsets - Wimbledon

Part of the reason we love sports is for the upsets and the underdogs who complete them. It can be great fun to cheer on the lowly rookie or the unranked competitor when he or she steps into the David versus Goliath situation. Just not all the time.

The 2010 Wimbledon grand slam at the All England Club has certainly been a memorable one, and it's not even over yet. If you love upsets, you might just be sick of them by this point. An upset in tennis is generally an unranked player beating a ranked player, or a lower seed beating a higher seed (21 over 2).

Some of the casualties of this year's tournament? Venus Williams, Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters are some of the more notable names in singles. Oh, and the big one? Roger Federer. Yes, the man who won his 16th grand slam last year in an epic match against Roddick lost in four sets. He even lost one set 6-1; that's just amazing.

On the doubles side, the American sibling powerhouses named Williams (Venus and Serena) and Bryan (Bob and Mike) both fell short before the goal of a title.

If all the upsets weren't enough, let's not forget about the longest tennis match in history between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut back in the first round. You know, the one with the 70-68 fifth set in which Isner finally won after more than 11 total hours spanning three days? Of course, Isner somewhat expectedly had a letdown in the second round with a straight-set loss.

I think I was the most disappointed about Roddick's upset, even more so after Federer was bounced in the quarterfinals. Andy came oh-so-close to winning the grass title last year, and I was really pulling for him this time around.

On the men's side, Tomas Berdych has twice been the spoiler. First, he was the one to knock out Federer in the quarters, and then he pulled off another upset when he beat Djokovic in the semis. If he can pull a third rabbit out of his tennis hat, he'll win the Wimbledon title in his first final appearence in a major. But he'll have to go through Rafa Nadal to do it.

Nadal moved on to the final after a 6-4, 7-6, 6-4 win over sentimental favorite Andy Murray. After Federer was gone, I was hoping Murray could pull off some magic of his own to win Wimbledon. This was his shot. But not only is Federer a huge hurdle, Rafa certainly is no slouch either. He's playing amazing tennis right now.

All that's left is Breakfast at Wimbledon this weekend for the men's and women's finals. Serena Williams looks untouchable as she will face No. 21 Vera Zvonareva. And Rafa should have the edge in the men's final.

So, will it be the dominant past champions Rafa and Serena? Or will Upset Wimbledon 2010 continue with another act or two?