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Sunday, October 21, 2012

This Week in Sports: October 20, 2012

A lot has happened in one week.  Most of it in baseball.  And, don't pass out, but soccer makes an appearance in this week's column.

The Week That Was:  When I wrote last week's column the ALCS wasn't even set.  And now, it's over.  It's been a busy week.

(Paul Sancya/AP)
MLB:  It took the New York Yankees all five games, but they were able to beat the Baltimore Orioles and advance to the ALCS.  Unfortunately for the Yankees, they ran into a buzz saw known as the Detroit Tigers.  The Tigers' pitching staff dominated the Bronx Bombers, and their offense produced when it had to.  The Tigers swept the Yankees in four games and will have a week off before the World Series.

In the National League, things are a bit more competitive.  The St. Louis Cardinals needed a magical comeback in Game 5 to beat the Washington Nationals and advance to the NLCS.  The Cardinals kept their momentum going when they beat the Giants on the road in Game 1 of the NLCS.  The Giants won Game 2 at home before the series moved to St. Louis for the next three games.  The Cardinals won Game 3 and Game 4.  That gave the Cardinals a chance to close out the series at home on Friday night.  But, Barry Zito gave the Giants a gutsy performance from the mound in this must-win game.  The Giants stayed alive with a 5-0 victory.  The series now moves back to San Francisco for Game 6 on Sunday and possibly Game 7 on Monday.

Soccer:  The World Cup doesn't start in earnest until the summer of 2014, but qualifying has already been underway for quite some time.  World Cup qualifying is a complicated system that I will not attempt to explain.  The thing that you need to know is that on Tuesday night, the U.S. men's team faced elimination when they played Guatemala in Kansas City.  A loss would have eliminated the U.S. from any further qualifying rounds.  A win would clinch advancement.  A tie would require the U.S. to wait on other teams' results to know their fate.  There were nervous moments early in the match when Guatemala jumped out to an early 1-0 lead with a goal in the 5th minute.  But, Bocanegra of the U.S. quickly scored the equalizer in the 10th minute.  Clint Dempsey then tacked on a pair of goals for the Americans in the first half.  The 3-1 score would stand.  That means that the United States advanced on to the six-team Concacaf qualifying round.  Those matches will begin in February of 2013.

College Football:  In the biggest game of the week, undefeated #3 South Carolina traveled into Death Valley to take on the one-loss #9 LSU Tigers.  The Tigers were able to defend their home turf and won the game 23-21.  #13 Oklahoma turned the Red River Rivalry into the Red River Massacre.  They defeated the arch-rival #15 Texas Longhorns by a score of 63-21.  #7 Notre Dame remained undefeated by beating #20 Stanford 20-13 in South Bend.  The most surprising score of the day came out of Lubbock, TX where unranked Texas Tech knocked #5 West Virginia from the ranks of the unbeatens.  The Red Raiders hammered the Mountaineers 49-14.

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
The Week That Is: With all the baseball in flux mid-week, I'm writing this post later than I normally do.  So, there is an extra weekend of college football that got played in between these columns.  I would have just ignored that fact if not for three games that require some attention.  One of the games was close.  The other two were noteworthy because of their lopsided outcomes.  Notre Dame played in the close game.  The #5 Irish hosted BYU.  BYU gave it the old college try, but Notre Dame remained unbeaten with a tough 17-14 victory.  West Virginia was once again the focus of one of the biggest games of the weekend.  And, once again, the Mountaineers were on the wrong end of a one-sided contest.  #4 Kansas State proved that they really are a force to be reckoned with when they stormed into Morgantown and destroyed the #13 Mountaineers.  The 55-14 victory moves the reborn Wildcats to 7-0 on the season.  Another team that made a loud statement that it belongs in the national championship conversation was the Florida Gators.  The #2 Gators annihilated #7 South Carolina in the Swamp by a score of 44-11.

The Week Ahead:  As I said before, I'm writing this column a few days late.  So, the week ahead is a bit abbreviated.

NFL:  It's hard to know exactly which games will turn out to have been the most pivotal once the season is over, but there are three games on this weekend's slate that stand out from the rest.  Heading into Week 7, there are only two teams in the AFC that have winning records.  Those two teams will face off in Houston when the Texans host the Baltimore Ravens.  This game will be on CBS in the early time slot.  The Redskins and the Giants are playing in another marquis matchup.  This is a big game because it is RG3's first trip to the Big Apple.  But, more importantly, the Redskins are just one game behind the Giants for first place in the NFC East.  Therefore, this divisional game is meaningful to both teams in their quest for the playoffs.  This game will air on FOX in the early slot.  Another big divisional matchup will take place in the AFC East.  The entire division is tied at 3-3.  This afternoon, the New York Jets will head to New England to take on the Patriots.  That game will be on CBS in the late game time slot.

MLB:  Game 6 of the NLCS will take place in San Francisco tonight.  The Cardinals hold a 3-2 advantage in the series.  The Cardinals will send Chris Carpenter to the mound.  Carpenter was supposed to be an ace heading into the season, but he was out of the lineup most of the year with injury.  Ryan Vogelsong will pitch for the Giants as they try to keep their season alive.  That game will be played at 7:30 EST on FOX.  If the Giants are able to force a Game 7, that will take place on Monday night at 8:00 on FOX.

The winner of the NLCS will face the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.  The World Series will start in the National League city on Wednesday night.  The times have yet to be announced, but the entire series will air on FOX.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Cooking with Banshee: Sweet Tequila Tea

This recipe was labeled as a summertime drink.  But down here in the South, we drink sweet tea all year round.  And, in the Banshee Lair, we like it with a little kick.  I got this recipe from my friend Susan Carman, an expert on alcohol and all things southern.  I've tweaked it just a bit.  This recipe is not too strong, so it's perfect for parties.

12 cups of water (divided)
6 tea bags
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup thawed frozen orange juice concentrate
1/2 cup thawed frozen lemonade concentrate
2 cups gold tequila

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil.  Remove from heat.  Add tea bags.  Cover and allow the tea to steep for  5 minutes.  Discard tea bags.  Add sugar and stir until dissolved.  Pour the strong, sugary tea into a large pitcher.  Add the orange juice, lemonade, tequila and 8 cups of remaining water.  Mix together well.  Refrigerate until chilled.  Serve over ice.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

This Week in Sports: October 12, 2012

October is one of the busiest months on the sports calendar.  This week was action-packed.

The Week That Was:  Football and NASCAR had some interesting stories this week, but the baseball playoffs are the premier event in this week's column.

Trash on the field in Atlanta (AP)
MLB:  The playoffs got underway last Friday night with the all-new, wild card, play-in games.  In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Braves in a controversial game that was marred by horrendous fan behavior.  After an unusual invocation of the infield fly rule in a pivotal moment in the game, the Braves fans caused a 15-minute delay by throwing bottles and other trash onto the field.  In the American League, the Texas Rangers completed their late-season collapse by losing at home to the Baltimore Orioles.

Due to the addition of the wild card games, the division series had a new format this year.  The team with the home field advantage actually started out with two games on the road.  Then the final three games took place in the higher-seeded team's ballpark.

In the National League, the Giants hosted the Reds to start one division series.  The Giants dropped both of those home games.  But, the Giants stormed back and won all three games in Cincinnati to advance to the NLCS.  In the other NLDS, the Cardinals hosted the Nationals for the first two games.  The teams split those games in St. Louis.  The Cardinals won Game 3 in Washington to take a 2-1 lead in the series.  On Thursday afternoon, the Nationals staved off elimination when Jason Werth hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 9th inning.  Game 5 will be played on Friday night in Washington, DC.  That game will be played at 8:30 on TBS.

In the American League, the Detroit Tigers were matched up against the Oakland A's.  The Tigers won both games at home.  But, just as they've done all season, the A's bounced right back and won the next two games in Oakland.  The Tigers closed out the A's dream season late on Thursday night, thanks in large part to the dominant pitching of Justin Verlander.  The other ALDS started off with the Orioles hosting the Yankees for the first two games.  The O's and Yanks split those two games before the series headed back to New York.  Game 3 was a dramatic 12-inning affair in the Bronx.  The Yankees won the game to take a 2-1 lead in the series.  Game 4 was another nail-biter.  The Orioles prevailed in 13 innings to force a fifth and decisive game on Friday afternoon.  That game will be played at 5:00 p.m. EST on TBS.

NASCAR:  Talladega has long been known for "the big one."  And on Sunday, "the big one" caused damage that will extend beyond just one weekend's results.  On the final lap, Tony Stewart attempted to block Michael Waltrip from taking the lead.  Stewart succeeded in crashing Waltrip, himself and a majority of the field, including ten of the twelve drivers eligible to win the championship.  Matt Kenseth escaped the melee and won the race.  Brad Keselowski finished 7th and held on to first place in the Sprint Cup standings.  Stewart ended up skidding on the pavement on his side, but it was Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who was the biggest loser in the race.  He officially finished 20th after being collected in the wreck.  But, Junior suffered a concussion in the crash that will keep him out of the next two races in the chase.  That effectively ends Junior's quest for the Cup.

College Football:  With Alabama taking the week off, some other championship hopefuls had a chance to make a statement on the national stage.  In the SEC, #10 Florida defended its home turf and defeated #4 LSU.  Also in the SEC, #6 South Carolina hosted #5 Georgia.  The Gamecocks absolutely dismantled the Bulldogs.  And in the Big 12, West Virginia continued their winning ways in their new conference.  The #8 Mountaineers headed to Austin, TX and defeated the #11 Longhorns.  In the ACC, #3 Florida State's national championship hopes dimmed severely when they were upset at unranked NC State.

The Week Ahead:  The MLB playoffs take center stage again this weekend.  The NLCS and ALCS will both get underway this weekend.  Neither matchup is set yet at this point.  In college football, the SEC takes center stage again when #3 South Carolina travels to #9 LSU.  That game will be shown on ESPN at 8:00 EST.  Earlier in the day, #15 Texas and #13 Oklahoma will renew the Red River Rivalry at high noon (12:00 p.m. EST) on ABC.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sliding Slumping A-Rod

Game 3 of the ALDS between the Orioles and the Yankees begins shortly in the Bronx.  The teams split the first two games in Baltimore.  The final three games of the five-game series will be played in New York.  The first two games of the series involved some great pitching, some ugly defense and some bizarre base running.  But all the talk heading into tonight's game is about whether Yankees' manager Joe Girardi should move Alex Rodriguez out of the third spot in the batting order and slide him down in the lineup.

A-Rod, has been awful in the first two games of the playoffs.  He has gone 1 for 9 with 5 strikeouts and no RBIs.  That is indisputably terrible.  Therefore, the fans and talking heads on sports radio have declared that Girardi's decision is a no-brainer.  A-Rod must move down in the batting order.

But, I say it's not that simple.

First of all, baseball is a long-term sport.  The season is an eternal 162 games.  Streaks, good and bad, happen.  If the argument is that A-Rod should have been batting 7th or 8th all season, well, there might be some merit to that.  That is a different discussion altogether.  But, surely Joe Girardi considered his lineup all season long and decided heading into the playoffs that 3rd was the best slot for his 3rd baseman.  Again, reasonable minds can differ on this point.  But, nothing that happened in the first two games of this series ... or any series ... is a reason to abandon the long-term plan.

But, more importantly, who do the Yankees really have that they can count on to be better in that spot

Jeter, the reliable captain, is leading off.  The red-hot and speedy Ichiro is batting second.  Robinson Cano, the Yankees best player, is batting clean-up.  No one is suggesting that any of these guys should move.

So, who are the other candidates for the 3rd spot in the order?  Switch-hitting Nick Swisher's name has been bandied about.  But, Swisher has been having his own struggles.  Swisher is a chilly 1 for 6 in the playoffs and, during the regular season, had the same .272 batting average as A-Rod.  Mark Teixeira is another popular name.  Tex hit well in the first two games in Baltimore.  But, over the course of the 162-game season, he batted a meager .251.  Curtis Granderson?  He hit 43 home runs this year and batted in 106 runs.  Not too shabby.  But, the Grandyman either hit it out of the park or went down swinging.  He struck out 195 times this season on the way to an ugly .232 batting average.  The other two men in the line-up for Game 3 are catcher Russell Martin and third baseman Eric Chavez.  To describe Martin as a light-hitting catcher is an insult to light hitters.  Martin batted .211 this season.  Chavez has acquitted himself well at the plate when he has been in the lineup this season, but he is a part time player.

If I was Joe Girardi, I honestly do not know what I would do with the Yankees lineup for Game 3.  But I do know that it is not a simple or obvious decision.

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

NFL Prediction Report Card

We have reached the quarter pole of the NFL season (for those of you unfamiliar with horse racing, that means we are 25% done).  Before the season started, Wild Banshee posted her preseason predictions for each division.  Well, if I'm gonna open my big mouth, it's only fair that I hold myself accountable.  It's report card time.  Let's take a look at the predictions and how they stand.

AFC East:  I predicted that the New England Patriots would win the division and compete for the best record in the conference.  After four games, the Patriots and the Jets are tied for the division lead at 2-2. As far as the division is concerned, I stand behind this prediction.  The Jets and Patriots may have the same record at this point, but they are headed in distinctly different directions.  I still believe that the Patriots will win the division and that no wild cards will come from the AFC East.  Prediction Grade: B+

AFC North:  Preseason, I predicted that that Ravens would win the division and that the Bengals would be a wild card.  After four games, I feel good about this prediction.  The Bengals and the Ravens are tied at the top of the division at 3-1.  The Ravens lost to the unpredictable Eagles, but, aside from that, they have looked strong.  Any drop-off from the aging Ravens' defense has been compensated for by the improved offense.  I still feel confident that the Ravens will best the Bengals in the division and that the Bengals will make the playoffs as a wild card.  Prediction Grade: A

AFC South:  We don't have to waste much time on this.  I predicted that the Texans would win the division and that everyone else would be awful.  After four games, the Texans are 4-0.  The other three teams have combined for a total of three wins.  Prediction Grade: A+

AFC West:  Okay, time for Wild Banshee to eat some humble pie.  I predicted that the Raiders would win the division and that the Chiefs would make the playoffs as a wild card.  After four games, the Raiders and the Chiefs have combined for 2 wins.  Meanwhile, the Chargers are 3-1 and the Broncos are 2-2.  Based on the eye test, I'm not willing to give up on the Raiders just yet.  I still think they will be in the hunt for a wild card.  But, it seems clear that the Chargers are in the driver's seat to win the division.  It's also clear that the Chiefs are awful.  Prediction Grade: D-

NFC East:  I predicted that the Eagles would win the division.  After four games, the Eagles are 3-1 and on top of the standings.  But, boy have they looked ugly in the process!  I stand by the prediction that the Eagles will win the division.  And, I feel even more confident about my prediction that no one else in this messy division will make the playoffs.  Prediction Grade: A

NFC North:  Wild Banshee predicted that the Packers would win the division and that the Bears would get into the playoffs as a wild card.  After four games, it is actually the Vikings that are 3-1 and tied with the Bears for first place.  Adrian Peterson has returned from his ACL injury much faster than anyone could have predicted.  And Christian Ponder is turning out to be a legitimate NFL quarterback.  Nonetheless, I'm not prepared to move off of my prediction just yet.  The Packers are a proven commodity, and I still believe that they will end up at the top of the division when the season ends.  Prediction Grade: B

NFC South:  I've had very schizophrenic prediction results so far in this division.  I predicted that the Falcons would win the division, and the Falcons are undefeated after four weeks.  On the other hand, I predicted that the Saints would be right there with the Falcons at the top of the division.  Boy, was I wrong about that!  If it's possible for a team to look extra bad on the way to an 0-4 record, the Saints have done it.  They have lost to bad teams, and they have played zero defense.  Prediction Grade: C

NFC West:  Wild Banshee went out on a limb and predicted that this division would be much-improved.  So far, it seems that I was right about that.  The Rams and the Seahawks have both shown that they cannot be taken lightly by any team.  The 49ers appear to be even better than they were last year.  The Niners are 4-0 after four weeks and have established themselves as the most physical team in the NFL.  But I also predicted that the Cardinals would be the worst team in all of football.  I actually used the word "abomination."  The Cardinals also got off to a 4-0 start.  I'm still not convinced that they will make the playoffs, but it is clear that apologies are in order.  As a result, I cannot give myself glowing reviews for the NFC West predictions.  Prediction Grade: B

Well, that takes care of the first quarter report card.  Think I was too easy on myself?  Feel free to leave a comment with your own grades.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

This Week in Sports: October 4, 2012

The Week that Was:  With the NFL in midseason form, college football getting into conference play and baseball coming to the end of the regular season, it's pretty remarkable for golf to take center stage in the past sports week.  And yet, it did.

(AP Photo/David J. Phillips)
Ryder Cup:  The Ryder Cup is a three-day, match-play event that is played every two years between the United States and Europe.  The first two days are a series of team competitions.  Sunday consists of twelve one-on-one matches.  That makes a total of twenty-eight matches.  A full point is awarded for a win.  A half point is awarded to each team in a tie.  Since the Europeans won in Whales two years ago, they only needed 14 points to keep possession of the Cup.  The Americans needed 14.5 points to take it away.

Conventional wisdom was that the Americans were stronger in the singles format than in the team play.  So, when the US held a 10-6 lead heading into Sunday, the Americans seemed to be in a strong position to win back the Cup.  But then Sunday happened.  The Europeans dominated singles play and had clinched the Cup before Tiger Woods even finished up his anchor match.  The final score was 14.5 to 13.5 in favor of the Euros.  Germany's Martin Kaymer sealed the victory with when he sank a 6-foot putt for par on the 18th hole in the next-to-last group.  This completed the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.

NASCAR:  The Sprint Cup Series is a third of the way through the ten-race Chase for Cup.  This weekend's race was held at the Monster Mile in Dover, DE.  In a race where fuel mileage was a critical facto, Brad Keselowski drove his Miller Light Dodge to victory lane for the fifth time this season.  It was also the second win for the blue deuce since the Chase started.  The win moved Keselowski into first place in the championship standings.  Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is just five points behind in second place.

College Football:  It was a wild weekend in college football.  #9 West Virginia made its Big 12 debut when it hosted #25 Baylor in Morgantown.  Turns out, the Mountaineers fit right in with their new conference mates.  They were able to win the game without playing defense for a single down.  The final score was 70-63.  Yes, folks.  This was a football game.  Not a basketball game.  The biggest story from this game was West Virginia quarterback, Geno Smith's jaw dropping performance.  Smith threw eight touchdowns and only six incompletions.  Baylor's defense may have as many holes as cheese cloth, but that performance would be hard to match against a Pop Warner team.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
MLB:  The regular season concluded last night.  And in the American League, it took all 162 games to sort out the playoff picture.  In the AL East, the Yankees bested the Orioles by 2 games and secured home field advantage throughout the American Leauge playoffs.  The Orioles did secure a wild card berth.  The Tigers made it to the playoffs by winning the AL Central.  But, the best race of them all ended up being in the AL West.  Just last week, Wild Banshee had declared that the Rangers had a comfortable lead over the Oakland A's.  However, the A's continued their amazing summer-long comeback.  Just goes to show what I know.  On the last day of the season, the A's hosted the Rangers in a day game.  The A's won game 162 of the season, and with it, the A's won the AL West.  The Rangers still made the playoffs as a wild card.

The National League was not quite so dramatic.  In the last week of the season, the Washington Nationals won the NL East.  They joined the Reds and the Giants as the other division winners.  The defending champion St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves secured the two wild card berths.

NFL:  To follow up on last week's column, the Cardinals and the Saints continued their early season streaks.  The Saints lost at Green Bay and dropped to 0-4 on the season.  The Cardinals rallied late to pick up an overtime win at home over the Dolphins.  That moved the Cardinals to 4-0.  The Cardinals join the Houston Texans and the Atlanta Falcons as the only undefeated teams in the NFL.

NHL:  The NHL makes it into this week's column for all the wrong reasons.  Nothing happened on the ice, and nothing will happen for the foreseeable future.  The labor dispute continues, and no new talks are scheduled between the players and the owners.  As a result, the NHL announced that the first two weeks of the regular season would be canceled.  The entire preseason had already been canceled.  The regular season was supposed to start on Thursday, October 11.

The Week Ahead:  Of course, every weekend is important in college football and the NFL, but Major League Baseball takes center stage this week.  And NASCAR also has a big event.

MLB:  There is a new playoff format this year.  In order to put more importance on actually winning the division, Bud Selig added a second wild card to each league.  The two wild card teams have to play each other in a one-game, play-in game before they can advance to meet a division winner on relatively equal footing.

In the National League, the festivities begin on Friday with the wild card game.  The Atlanta Braves host the St. Louis Cardinals at 5:00 p.m. EST.  The game will be shown on TBS.  The winner of the wild card game will then host the Washington Nationals on Sunday.  That series will be shown on TBS, but the times are yet to be determined.  The series between the division-winning San Francisco Giants and the Cincinnati Reds begins on Saturday night.  The Giants will be hosting the Reds at 9:30 p.m. EST.  That game will also be shown on TBS.

In the American League, the action gets underway in Texas when the Rangers host the Baltimore Orioles on Friday night in the wild card game.  That game will air on TBS at 8:30 p.m. EST.  The winner of that game will host the New York Yankees on Sunday.  That series will air on TBS, but the time for that game is still undecided.  The series between the division winners will begin on Saturday at 6:00 p.m. EST when the Detroit Tigers host the Oakland A's.  That series will be shown on TBS.

NASCAR: This weekend will be the fourth out of ten races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  This week the circuit heads to Talladega, Alabama.  Talladega is the only super speedway that is part of the Chase schedule.  Super speedways are notorious for the "big one" where a dozen cars can be taken out in one big wreck through no fault of their own.  As a result, this weekend has the potential to shake up the standings.  After this weekend, six normal races will follow.

College Football:  Three games separate themselves from the rest of the pack this weekend.  In the Big 12, #8 West Virginia heads to Austin, Texas to face the #11 Longhorns in the Mountaineers' first road game in their new conference.  That game will air on FOX at 7:00 p.m. EST.  The other two marquis games are taking place in the nation's marquis conference.  That, of course, is the SEC.  At 3:30 p.m., a pair of unbeatens will meet on CBS when #4 LSU heads to the Swamp to face #10 Florida.  At 7:00 p.m. EST, #5 Georgia will head to Columbia, SC to face the #6 South Carolina Gamecocks.  All three of these games will likely impact the national championship picture.

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