O’s Finish Sweep of Tigers, Move On To ALCS

Pop some bubbly, Baltimore. You’re four wins away from the World Series.

The last time the Baltimore Orioles stood on baseball’s biggest stage was 1983, which, for those keeping score at home, was a long time ago.

Now, the Birds are on the brink. And, after a decisive sweep of the heavily armed Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series, they’re well positioned to fly all the way.

It’s too much to call these Orioles underdogs. They won 96 regular-season games, after all, second-best in the American League, and they claimed the AL East crown going away.

But they entered the postseason carrying some question marks. Could the offense, hit by the losses of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado to injury and Chris Davis to an amphetamine suspension, still produce?

And would the starting rotation—which boasts a bevy of solid arms but no shutdown ace—hold up under the October glare?

As they celebrate in the Motor City, the Orioles have answered those questions with a resounding “yes and yes.”

On Sunday, it was the bat of Nelson Cruz and the arm of Bud Norris. Cruz, who hit .500 in the series with two long balls and five RBI, bashed a two-run homer in the sixth.
That would prove to be all the offense Baltimore needed. Norris tossed 6.1 scoreless innings, outdueling David Price, and the bullpen made it stand up en route to a 2-1 victory.

Overall, Baltimore outscored Detroit 21-10 in the series. Game 1 was a 12-3 blowout that featured an eight-run eighth inning against a beleaguered Tigers ‘pen.

In Game 2, Baltimore came from behind with another big eighth inning, plating four runs in the penultimate frame and winning, 7-6.

In sweeping Detroit, the Orioles bested a trio of Cy Young winners: Max Scherzer, who won the award last year, Price, who won it in 2012, and Verlander, who won it in 2011. It’s just the fourth time in history a club has accomplished that feat, according to Cash Kruth of MLB.com.

Talk about your confidence builders.

“[This team is] resilient, just doesn’t give up,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy after Friday’s win, per MLB.com’s Brittany Ghiroli.

Center fielder Adam Jones told Ghiroli something similar after Game 1: “We rise to the occasion. In the face of some good pitchers, we go after them and zone in a little bit more. There’s no answer to what we do, we just somehow, someway get the job done.”

That’s a trait all successful postseason clubs share: a no-quit attitude, an ability to dig in their heels when the pressure is greatest. It’s the intangible part of baseball, difficult to quantify but nonetheless essential.

The Orioles still have a tough road ahead. Dispatching the Tigers was an important first step, but if they’re going to make a long-awaited return to the Fall Classic, they’ll have to get through another team on a tear—the Kansas City Royals, who swept their ALDS against the Los Angeles Angels.

Kansas City and Baltimore have a lot in common. Both are success-starved franchises with balanced, unheralded rosters. Both beat star-studded Goliaths. And both are gelling at the right time. Should make for a great ALCS.

Still, it’d be unwise to bet against this O’s team.

And that’s the key—it looks, and plays, like a team. Sure, there are stars: guys like Cruz and Jones. Mostly, though, the 2014 Orioles are a cohesive unit, one that is greater than the sum of its parts.

What We’ve Learned From An Insane Week in College Football

Simply stunning.

There’s no other way to describe a weekend of college football where a remarkable 12 of the top 20 teams lost. Granted, five of these games featured top-20 match-ups, but even factoring that in, we still witnessed one of the most remarkable college football weekends in recent memory. With the smoke having cleared, and the AP and USA Today having released their latest polls, we can now take a look at the real winners and losers of an epic college football weekend.

Winners

1.  The state of Mississippi

If you had stated at the beginning of the season that two of the top four teams in the country five games into the season would be Ole Miss and Mississippi State, then I would of called you guys a bunch of liars. However, today you would have been truly vindicated. Believe it or not, the current center of the college football universe is, in fact, the state of Mississippi. This past weekend, #11 Ole Miss knocked off #3 Alabama 23-17 and #12 Mississippi State knocked off #6 Texas A&M 48-31. This has now set up for a wide open SEC West race where Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn now all sit at 2-0. With both Texas A&M and Alabama lurking a game behind, expect this conference to go down to the season’s final weekend to determine the league’s representative in the SEC Championship Game.

2.  Last year’s title game contenders

Both Florida State and Auburn won on Saturday, thereby avoiding the damage that wreaked havoc on the other top teams. Top-ranked Florida State went out and handled business on Saturday, sounding defeating an over-matched Wake Forest team by a score of 41-3.  FSU went back to basics and their defense held Wake Forest to 40 rushing yards on 39 carries while their offense held its own by scoring the last 43 points of the game after spotting Wake Forest a 3-0 lead after one quarter. For fifth-ranked Auburn, it appeared that they would be involved in a tight battle against #15 LSU. However, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall wanted nothing to do with that. Marshall went out and accounted for four scores, two through the air and two on the ground, in the first half to lead Auburn to a 31-7 lead  and essentially ending the game after only thirty minutes of play.  With these two results, both FSU and Auburn and now #1 and #2 in the latest polls and have their destiny in their own hands as they play out the season.

3.  The College Football Playoff

What this past weekend has shown is that there is little to no separation between the top teams in college football this year. This bodes especially well for the inaugural season of having a four-team college football playoff.  Right now, behind FSU the #2, #3, and #4 teams in the country are all in the SEC West meaning that more likely only one of them will be able to make the playoff. However, lurking behind them are high-quality teams that also seem poised to place themselves in contention for the national championship. Baylor has proven itself to be the class of the Big 12, Notre Dame has bounced back from a sub-par year last year, and Michigan State has recovered nicely from an early season loss to Oregon. By having four slots available for the national championship this season instead of two, every game matters between now and the playoff, as this past weekend clearly showed us.

 

Losers 

1.  The Pac-12

Going into this past weekend, the Pac-12 had four teams in the top sixteen. This past weekend, all four of them lost leaving the league a long-shot and producing a team capable of qualifying for the playoff. Going into the weekend, Oregon had the best shot at emerging from the conference and many people felt they were the best team in the country. However, the Ducks lost to an upstart Arizona team by the score of 34-29 on their home turf on Thursday night, effectively eliminating them from national title contention. The Ducks would have still had a chance if other top teams in the conference had won; however, that didn’t happen. Eighth-ranked UCLA lost to unranked Utah 30-28, fourteenth-ranked Stanford lost to #9 Notre Dame 17-14 and #16 USC lost to unranked Arizona State on a last second Hail Mary to lose 38-34. When all is said and done, Arizona of all teams now controls its destiny in the Pac-12 but it seems like even if they win out, the conference’s strength of schedule might not be enough to get the Wildcats into title contention.

2.  Non-BCS Schools

With so many upsets, you would think that it would pave the way for some of the smaller, non-BCS conference schools to take advantage and to maybe creep into the top-15. However, that simply hasn’t been the case this year, and Saturday’s results verify this fact.  On Saturday the only school that had a chance to make some noise was #18 BYU out of the Mountain West Conference. Unfortunately, BYU lost at home to unranked Utah State 35-20 and now has dropped out of the top-25. With BYU’s loss the only non-BCS conference school in the top-20 is East Carolina at #19. However, ECU already has one loss and even if they win out they won’t be able to crack the top-4 to make the year-end playoff.

3.  The University of Michigan

Lastly, no coach this season has been under more criticism that Brady Hoke at the University of Michigan. The Wolverines have been struggling all season despite Hoke’s claims that the team still has a chance to be a national championship contender. Last weekend, after the team lost its third game of the season and students began to chanting “Fire Hoke”, Hoke and the entire Michigan staff faced criticism for putting in starting quarterback Shane Morris, despite the fact that Morris was exhibiting symptoms of a concussion. This past weekend, Michigan lost to Rutgers 26-24 to start 0-2 in the Big-10 Conference for the first time since 1967. With each passing week, the murmurs of both students and alumni are starting to get louder and louder in calls for Hoke to be removed as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  At this pace, there is a strong chance that Hoke won’t be able around to finish out the season on the Michigan sidelines.

We are still three weeks away from the first playoff poll coming out for the 2014 college football season. The only thing we know for sure is that this year is wide open as Saturday showcased. With the conference season coming into full swing, expect more shocking upsets as teams vie for a spot in their conference championship games and, ultimately, to become one of the first four teams in college football’s inaugural playoff season.

Kansas City Royals Win ALDS Game 3, Complete Sweep of Los Angeles Angels

One of the most tiresome things often heard in the last decade is that baseball needs a salary cap. This season should shut those critics up for a long time.

Think about it. Even before the postseason started, the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies all missed the playoffs. Earlier Sunday, the Baltimore Orioles reached the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1997.

Sunday night, the Kansas City Royals continued this unbelievable postseason, making it to the ALCS for the first time since 1985.

Now tell me again: Why does baseball need to shut the game down for a year when it already has a tremendous amount of parity?

The Royals have slowly built to this for several years. Ever since general manager Dayton Moore convinced owner David Glass to start investing in the farm system and scouting, the Royals have been among the teams to watch. Like any team that operates in fits and starts, however, the Royals took two steps back with every step forward.

This season, the Royals finally moved forward. If it wasn’t the rock-solid pitching of James Shields, the dependable bullpen that included closer Greg Holland, or sure-fire defense led by catcher Salvador Perez, it was the hitting.

Like with any team that plays out of the media spotlight, players like Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon are finally finding their way to the national spotlight. The Royals just swept the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in three straight games to set up what should be an ALCS to remember.

Sure, the critics will say this can’t last. Shields is likely gone after this season to free agency. Who’s to say the Royals may not make a run at him? The extra revenue from this postseason will spill over to much bigger crowds in 2015. And even if Shields takes off for “greener” pastures, what’s to say another pitcher might tell his agent that he wants to play in Kansas City?

There was a time when George Brett played for the Royals that Kansas City was a destination city. The Royals were rock-solid from the mid-1970s up to around 1990 before the team took a few steps backward.

Another era of success might be around the corner. Kauffman Stadium was rocking Sunday night when the Royals clinched the ALDS win over Los Angeles. No one wants to wake up in Kansas City. For once, the spotlight isn’t on the Kansas City Chiefs.

This is a baseball town. The Royals are living a dream.

Arizona State Upsets USC With 46-yard Hail Mary On The Final Play

A complete meltdown of the passing defense highlighted by a single play in the final seconds of No. 16-ranked USC’s 38-34 loss Saturday to Arizona State will haunt the Trojans in their pursuit of the Pac-12 championship.

In just his second career start, Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici capped a 510 yards passing, five-touchdown night with a 46-yard Hail Mary to wide receiver Jaelen Strong.

Arizona State needed every inch that went into Bercovici’s bomb, but the Sun Devils made the most of a few other big plays in the final stretch.

The Trojans’ miscues on Arizona State’s game-winner were the culmination of an overall defensive meltdown uncharacteristic of the team earlier in the night.

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said in his postgame press conference that he “would have liked to have seen more bodies around the ball” on Bercovici’s last-ditch effort.

One of the Trojans in the neighborhood was linebacker Hayes Pullard.

Pullard said he does not typically play deep—“Just boxing out defenders,” usually—but Sarkisian said the linebacker’s presence was needed to aid the Trojans secondary.

Arizona State was able to pick on cornerback Kevon Seymour some, including on Bercovici’s 73-yard hook-up with wide receiver Cameron Smith, the Sun Devils’ penultimate score.

That touchdown pass negated USC running back Javorius “Buck” Allen’s 53-yard touchdown rush just moments earlier.

Though big plays have come infrequently against the USC secondary, Oregon State’s sole passing success a week ago also came at the expense of Seymour.

Arizona State was able to more consistently exploit those big plays, which in turn forced USC to be less aggressive with its pass-rush.

Bercovici was the X-factor well before the Hail Mary. USC contained the Arizona State run game, holding the Sun Devils to just 31 rushing yards on the evening. But as it became evident USC would not yield much on the ground, Bercovici successfully went to the air.

His two scoring strikes to Strong in the first half were the first passing touchdowns the USC defense surrendered all season.

The second set an ominous tone in hindsight: It was a 77-yard connection with Strong.

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox seemingly ironed out the kinks after that score, as Arizona State went the next 33 minutes without crossing the goal line.

After giving up the first two touchdown passes it surrendered all season in the first half, the USC defense buckled down to keep Arizona State out of the end zone for the next 33 minutes.

But in just three minutes, 53 seconds, USC gave up three touchdowns. In less than four minutes, the Trojans went from looking at a 3-0 Pac-12 mark to an 0-1 start in the South division.

The opposite was true for Arizona State. The reigning division champion Sun Devils were faced with falling behind 0-2 in the South after losing to UCLA last week, 62-27.

Down nine points on two separate occasions in the final minutes, that 0-2 start looked all but certain for the Sun Devils.

However, playing in front of a throng of family and friends, Bercovici—a product of nearby Taft High School—engineered drives of 98, 73 and 72 yards.

He did just that throughout the night, avoiding throwing any interceptions after giving away two against UCLA.

Bercovici exploited a coverage that’s been proven time and again to be ineffective in late-game situations, and it cost the Trojans.

USC now heads into next week’s road contest against unbeaten Arizona in need of a victory to get its championship aspirations back on course.

 

 

San Francisco Giants Outlast Nationals In Marathon 18-Inning NLDS Game 2

The marathon game is finally over after Brandon Belt hit a solo homerun in the 18th inning to lead the San Francisco Giants over the Washington Nationals 2-1. This game should be about Belt’s heroics, but much will be made of the Nationals manager. Matt Williams cost the Nationals a chance to win game-two of the NLDS. After a ninth inning walk to Joe Panik to end Jordan Zimmerman’s streak of 20 straight batters retired, Williams chose to turn to Drew Storen out of the bullpen instead of staying with Zimmermann.

It was truly an inexplicable decision. Zimmermann was cruising, and he was only 100 pitches on the night. With Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval due up the order, wouldn’t you want your team’s best pitcher against the opposition’s heart of their lineup? I know I would. Nevertheless, after a two-out walk to Panik, it took only a handful of pitches for Posey to single and Sandoval to double him home. The Nationals could have very well lost it in the ninth inning as well, as Posey was called out in a controversial play at the plate.

The Nationals had plenty of chances to walk away with the win, but nine innings later, regardless, the Giants now head back to AT&T Park ahead in the NLDS 2-0. With Madison Bumgarner scheduled to pitch on Monday, it could be over quickly for the Nationals, just like it was in 2012, when they entered the postseason in similar fashion.

The decisions by Williams just highlighted the team’s total inexperience in the postseason as the Giants remained cool. After allowing the tying run in the ninth, Williams and Asdrubal Cabrera were both tossed after arguing balls and strikes in the 10th inning. It was a complete unraveling by the Nationals due to the frustration buildup from game-one and the majority of game-two, and it ultimately cost Washington the game, and potentially the series.

The win for the Giants, however, was just more evidence of how resilient this team really is. They won the World Series in 2010 and 2012 with similar resiliency. They weren’t the favorites in either of those series, but yet they moved their way through. Tonight was just another example of Bruce Bochy pulling all the right strings and believing in his players to come through in the end.

The same cannot be said for Williams, as the rookie manager made the mistake of pulling Zimmermann, and in turn, probably costing the Nationals any chance of winning this series.

Russell Wilson Writes Against Domestic Violence

With the NFL dealing with the ongoing issue of domestic violence committed by its players and personnel, and the fallout from its own lack of action, one of its most visible superstars has taken the initiative to do something about it. Earlier this week, Wilson announced the launch of a new organization, the Why Not You Foundation, which will help support victims of domestic violence.

With the foundation, Wilson is hoping to start an initiative known as Pass The Peace, which will help raise money for The National Domestic Violence Hotline. By tagging people on social media and utilizing the hashtag #WNYPassThePeace, Wilson is asking that those who ‘Pass the Peace’ donate at least $2 to the hotline. The foundation has made it simple by setting up a text line where you just need to text WNYPASSTHEPEACE and the contribution will be added to your phone bill.

Wilson’s announcement coincided with his being named the Senior Editor of The Players Tribune, a new website started by retired Yankees great Derek Jeter. The Players Tribune is advertised as a website that will allow athletes to give their own personal insights via videos and first-person stories, rather than through the mouths of sportswriters, agent and PR personnel. It was launched a few days ago. Wilson’s first contribution was a personal essay discussing the foundation.

He started the piece by revealing that he was a bully when he was younger and used to beat up other kids.

used to beat people up. Truthfully, I used to beat people up a lot. Many of you readers probably think I have been Mr. Goody Two-Shoes my whole life, but honestly, I was a bully growing up. In elementary and middle school, I threw kids against the wall. I rubbed their heads in the dirt at recess. I bit them. I even knocked teeth out.

I had a lot of anger that I didn’t know what to do with. Thankfully, I was saved by my faith when I was 14 years old, and was able to start living for others instead of just myself. But if you’ve ever been at the bottom of a pile with me, you know that I still have a bit of that bully deep down inside—just ask DeMarcus Ware—and I work hard to keep it there.

Wilson discussed that football is a violent game, but the violence need to be limited to the field of play and not taken out on others when the game’s over. He also pointed out that domestic violence is not limited to the NFL and that it is a national problem. However, limited resources for shelters mean that as many as 10,000 people are turned away every day in this country when seeking help and assistance.

The Super Bowl winning QB stated that he had tended to stay away from controversial issues in his career. However, he feels strongly about this particular topic and wants to do something, however small, to help.

Maybe in our cynical world, this seems too ambitious, or even naive. Maybe this issue is too taboo, too toxic. I’ve tended to avoid controversial topics throughout my career, but in my first piece for The Players’ Tribune, I wanted to be open and address something that’s important, timely and relevant. I’ve been silent on the issue for too long, falling back on the “I can’t speak to someone else’s personal life” excuse. But victims need physical, emotional and financial support and care, and the resources to get away from their abusers. Abusers, you need to get help—you can change.

How many of you reading right now knew that October is Domestic Violence Awareness month? I certainly didn’t. I had to Google it. And that’s part of why I felt so inspired to do my part. This initiative, this story, is about acknowledging something difficult, something we’d rather not see. When I look back at beating kids up on the playground, I don’t like that image. But I moved past that place in my life, and I’m proud of the man I am now.

 

As Wilson said, it is easy as a cynic to see this attempt as naive. However, movements have to start somewhere. As we’ve seen with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, social media can really get a cause moving and raise both money and awareness. Hopefully, Wilson’s initiative takes off.

No. 11 Mississippi Stuns No. 3 Alabama, 23-17

Until Saturday, the offense for the Alabama Crimson Tide had looked good. However, some questions remained because the Alabama schedule had not been extremely tough thus far in 2014.

In Saturday’s game against the Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford, Alabama’s offense got its first real test of the season. And it didn’t go well. A look at the box score will show that the Tide had 396 yards of total offense, including 168 on the ground. However, the Tide wasted several scoring opportunities which came back to haunt them as Ole Miss pulled the 23-17 upset.

After moving the ball up and down the field in the first quarter, Alabama was still not able to score. However, they broke through in the second quarter as quarterback Blake Sims took it in from one yard out to give the Tide a 7-3 lead. That was followed by Alabama’s only other touchdown of the game, which was scored by the ‘Bama defense, as Cyrus Jones scored on a 13-yard fumble return.

Alabama’s only points in the second half came on an Adam Griffith 44-yard field goal. However, Griffith missed two other field goals in the game, wasting good drives by Sims and the offense.

Sims finished the game with 228 yards passing with no touchdowns and an interception. That’s simply not going to get it done against today’s high-powered SEC offenses. Head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin are either going to have to tweak the offense to make it easier for Sims, or they will have to switch to backup quarterback Jake Coker.

Something must change for the Tide on offense, or more losses could be coming as the season rolls on.