Mental flossing

Sorry it’s been awhile since the last post, but real life intruded and prevented me from finding the time. I will hopefully get around to a few posts in the next week or two, beginning with this one. This reminds me, I still need to get a hat.

Ever since my Atlanta Braves made a most improbable comeback against the Philadelphia Phillies in the opener of their three-game series at the Ted Tuesday night — improbable, that is, except to Phillies fans sick of seeing Ryan Madson try to close games — the Bravos haven’t been playing well.

Granted, they were shut out by Roy Halladay the next night, hardly an embarrassment these days. The next night they were flummoxed by 86-year-old Jamie Moyer, however, and entered Friday’s series at Citi Field presumably happy to see the host New York Mets in the opposing dugout.

Unfortunately it didn’t help them snap out of their slide Friday night, and the last-place Mets handed Atlanta its third straight loss, 5-2. New York padded its lead in the seventh inning thanks to a dropped pop fly, a lack of understanding of the infield fly rule and mental lapses.

Things only got worse on Saturday as another solid pitching performance by Jair Jurrjens went for naught in a 3-1 loss to the Mets, the Braves’ fourth straight. Again the loss was marred by a critical miscue, as Yunel Escobar failed to tag up and score on a fly ball to right-center by Troy Glaus that wound up getting Martin Prado tagged out in a rundown between second and third. Injury was then added to insult when Chipper Jones left in the third inning on his 38th birthday with a hip problem.

The good news Sunday was that Atlanta was on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball and that Jones would return after testing his hip swinging in his hotel room earlier in the day. But rain shortened to six innings what would be the fifth straight defeat for the Braves and a series sweep by the Mets, 1-0. The lone run for the Mets? Jose Reyes scored on a two-out throwing error by Jones in the first on a play where he could have held the ball and kept Reyes on third.

Thus the Braves were swept into the NL East cellar and boosted the Mets back into the thick of the division race by being outscored by a combined score of 9-3 — an average of two runs per game. The mistakes the Braves made in the field (seven errors), on the bases and at the plate (3-for-22 with runners in scoring position) during the Mets series were even more costly with a 3.06 ERA coming from their starters.

That come-from-behind win Tuesday put the Braves a season-high three games over .500 at 8-5, and was actually the second consecutive game they won with two outs in the ninth after rookie phenom Jason Heyward’s two-run single sank Colorado Sunday. Otherwise it’s been a rollercoaster ride this season.

When Atlanta did play well, it was pitching (team 3.86 ERA, 8th in the NL) and individual efforts like those of Heyward (8-for-15 with runners in scoring position, 16 RBIs) and Martin Prado (.406 average). The team is now hitting .228, worst in the NL.

Bobby Cox lit into the team following Saturday’s loss, and hopefully the team can turn things around quickly, though heading to St. Louis for a four-game set won’t make it easy. Despite veterans like Jones, Glaus and Tim Hudson and stars like McCann and Jurrjens, this is a pretty young squad that hasn’t found consistency and seems to be suffering from some of the problems that fans had hoped were solved by off-season moves. Yunel Escobar’s brain cramps and lack of effort at times have been particularly disturbing.

Maybe the “early” night Sunday will allow the players to clear their heads at least a little before facing a possibly-struggling Cards squad. They better start proving the naysayers wrong, or else Heyward will be one of the only highlights of what would be a disappointing swan song for Cox.

Worst. Tournament. Ever.

Alas, poor tourney, I knew it.

Yep. That’s right. This year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was the worst.

How can you say that, I hear you scream at your computer monitor?

What about No. 14 seed Ohio, which reached the NCAA Tournament only because it inexplicably won the Mid-American Conference Tournament as the No. 9 seed with 14 losses, destroying the image of the tough-as-nails Big East with a 14-point opening-round defrocking of third-seeded Georgetown?

What about No. 13 Murray State’s 3-pointer at the buzzer stunning No. 4 Vandy in the first round? (Sorry, Matt, I picked the Commodores in my bracket, too.) Or for that matter, No. 11 Old Dominion outlasting an overrated Big East squad in No. 6 Notre Dame?

That’s only the tip of the upset iceberg, since the Sweet 16 was peppered with the likes of No. 10 St. Mary’s (I was ashamed to share two names with Scottie Reynolds after that performance from ‘Nova), No. 11 Washington out of the lightly-regarded Pac-10, and No. 12 Cornell.

The Big Red had been a darling early in the year out of the Ivy League, but was somewhat forgotten before being put into a bracket with a Temple team that matched up terribly and a Wisconsin team that proves at least to me that Tom Izzo and Michigan State should be able to find a better conference. Plus the team featured Louis Dale, the first person (as far as I know) I can say graduated from the same high school I did and went to the Big Dance. Go Altamont!

And thanks to Ali Farokhmanesh, we now know the name Ali Farokhmanesh. Oh, and thanks to his fearless and seemingly ill-advised 3-pointer in the final minute the tourney lost its first No. 1 seed — the one that was supposed to be the overall No. 1 seed, Kansas.

Many of those Cinderella dreams died in the Sweet 16, but that round provided the best game of the tournament with No. 2 Kansas State overcoming 40-foot 3-pointers and foul calls at the worst time to pull out a double-overtime thriller over No. 6 Xavier, 101-96. It was the fifth overtime game of the tournament, the second to go 2 OTs.

In that same round of course, No. 6 Tennessee ended the run of Evan Turner and No. 2 Ohio State, and No. 5 Butler finally alerted the world to its presence with a victory over No. 1 Syracuse. The Bulldogs took advantage of K-State’s exhausting win over Xavier to make its first-ever Final Four, and the last No. 1 seed anyone thought had a chance to win it all went down when Bob Huggins and No. 2 West Virginia stated their case that they should have gotten a No. 1 seed by topping talented but toddler-aged Kentucky.

That wouldn’t even be Huggins’ best moment of the tournament as far as this fan is concerned. The image of him crouched over injured star DeSean Butler trying to comfort him as he lay writhing in agony and anguish after tearing his ACL in the closing minutes of a national semifinal loss to Duke will stay with me for awhile.

On the other side, Butler would once again find a way to win a game it probably shouldn’t have — most teams that go 11 minutes without a field goal don’t win, unless they find a way to hold the opponent to zero fast-break points — and get to the national title game by edging Izzo’s Michigan State squad minus Kalin Lucas. It was the Bulldogs’ 25th straight win, and guaranteed them a title shot in an arena six miles from campus.

But they were facing Duke, playing for a championship for the first time since its last title in 2001. Sure, these Blue Devils were flawed and many figured they would be gone by now, but Haddonfield grad and senior center Brian Zoubek had finally found his place in their attack and with the trio of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith they would easily handle a Butler team that really didn’t have the horses to compete … right?

Instead, the final game turned out to surpass even Xavier’s battle with Kansas State. Neither team led by more than six points, and when Zoubek intentionally missed his second free throw with less than four seconds left it gave the Bulldogs’ Gordon Hayward a chance at a halfcourt shot for the win that he nearly banked in.

Duke had its fourth championship under coach Mike Krzyzewski (much to the chagrin of Blue Devils haters everywhere), but Butler made an indelible mark on fans and the tournament with its run and had nothing to be ashamed of.

So with all these reasons why it might be the best ever, how could it be the worst? OK, obviously I don’t believe that it’s the worst ever, but it makes me sick to think that it could be the last, at least in this format.

If the NCAA expands the field to 96 teams next year, we likely won’t see as many games like those mentioned above, even with more tournament games overall. Stories like those of Ohio’s Bobcats, Murray State’s Racers and others won’t mean as much since the conference tournaments won’t create as much Cinderella hype because the losers of those conference finals could also get into a larger field. That would be the worst tournament ever.

We already have the BCS in college football, and if this proposal of 32 more teams making the hoops field goes through (my guess is it’s in part because there seems to be so little interest in the NIT; the chant of “We’re No. 66!” just never seems to catch on) I think it’s just be more proof of the NCAA’s slavery to the almighty dollar and the increased hypocrisy of amateur collegiate athletics.

Plus there’s no way I’m bothering to fill out a bracket next year if I have to predict whether a No. 20 seed will beat a No. 13. But I guess if we fans had to see our tournament die, at least it went out with one hell of a bang.

Re-capping a love affair with baseball

The key to a dynasty?

Growing up in Birmingham, the Braves were the team to root for thanks to WTBS, even if they were pretty awful when I first started watching in the late 1970’s. I got spoiled in the 1990’s of course, staying up until the wee hours watching the 1991 and ’92 World Series and spending plenty of cash on 1995 World Series memorabilia.

It was thanks to me that the Braves went from worst to first back in 1991, you know. A couple of friends and I went to a Braves-Astros game early that season at the Astrodome when I was still going to school in San Antonio. While there I bought a brand-new Braves fitted cap for the first time, and they went to the World Series. It was quite nasty by the start of the next season wearing it every day, and so I bought a new one for 1992. Same result. I bought a new Braves hat every year through the mid-1990’s, including 1995.

But since moving up to New Jersey — and especially since TBS got rid of the Braves broadcasts — I’ve lost touch with my favorite team even as I’ve become more and more immersed in the Phillies thanks to work. I was fortunate enough to be there as a reporter when they won the World Series in 2008, and I don’t hate the Phils — I just like the Braves a lot more.

I decided to take a more active interest in the Braves again this season and have been doing a lot more reading up on them, even subscribing to a Braves podcast to try and keep better track of the team. The idea of it being Bobby Cox’s last season as coach, combined with the hype over 20-year-old outfielder Jason Heyward and the potential of one of the best pitching staffs in the NL have gotten me pretty excited for the season.

It makes perfect sense that I would find a way to cover just about the only game in our area to have a 5:30 start, thus ensuring that I would miss the Atlanta Braves’ 2010 season opener on ESPN against the Cubs. Needless to say, I was thrilled and crushed when my co-worker texted me just after I arrived at my game to tell me, “Jason hayward just hit one 450 ft. in first atbat.”

As Charlie Brown once opined, “AAUGH!!!!”

Thankfully, we live in the era of the Intertubes and have the ability to record such events for later playback, so I went online after finishing my story and watched the video of his history-making shot (he’s only the fifth player to ever homer in his first AB as a Brave) as the highlight of a 16-5 rout of the Cubbies and once-great pitcher Carlos Zambrano.

The call on Peachtree TV was nothing special (“Welcome to my show!” … Really?), but the video reaffirmed that I was right to reinvest in this team. First of all, I was thrilled to see a standing-room-only crowd at Turner Field. As Chipper Jones said in the postgame, “This has been a place where Cubs fans have felt at home. Today, pregame, I didn’t hear them at all. That’s something that needs to change, because I feel this team is going to be an exciting team all year long and Atlanta needs to embrace it.

“Come out support us and have electricity like today, because when it’s that electric this team is going to take it to another level.”

Even more exciting was that you could hear that crowd as Heyward awaited the 2-0 pitch from Zambrano that he crushed more than 400 feet into the Braves bullpen. The crowd was chanting, “Jason Heyward!” over and over like a bunch of rowdy soccer hooligans. Delicious.

Best of all, Jones was waiting in front of the dugout with open arms to give Heyward a big hug as he returned from his inaugural trip around the bases, which did feel something like a very quick inaugural parade (Heyward practically sprinted around the bases). It’s just the latest example, and first of the new season, of the improved level of team chemistry and camaraderie the players talked about in Spring Training.

I still believe that the Phillies are the team to beat in the NL East; you’d have to be overtly biased not to. But the Braves should give them a run for their money in 2010, and I am more excited than I’ve been in years that this season is finally underway.

I think it’s time to get a new cap.