YANKEES ON A ROLL
If you read most of the stories in the mainstream media about the New York Yankees you would swear this team must be struggling. With A.J. Burnett's meltdown and his likely impending exodus from the starting rotation, along with A-Rod's injury, the bad news has drawn the focus in the Bronx. But it hasn't stopped the Yankees from playing ruthlessly consistent baseball since the All-Star break. They come into Tuesday night's series against lowly Oakland with a 77-48 record, the best in the American League and just a hair shy of a 100-win pace.
New York's pitching has been very good all year, but it isn't the rotation that's the key to this post-All Star break run. There's nobody with an ERA under 3.00 for the second half, including ace C.C. Sabathia, and including the emerging Ian Nova, who's won his last five decisions. But other than Burnett, no one is over 4 either and that kind of consistency gives an offense and a bullpen plenty of chances to win games. And the Yanks are loaded in both areas.
Even without A-Rod, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson have carried the load offensively. Granderson continues an MVP-caliber campaign with a 10 home runs and a post-ASB slugging percentage over .600. Cano's on-base percentage in that same timeframe is .364 while he slugs .537. The table is being effectively set by Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter, who are each hitting over .300 in the second half and drawing walks consistently. Nick Swisher's patience has seen his second half OBP surge over .400 and he's back to being an always-pesky and occassionally devastating part of the bottom half of the order. Mark Teixeira isn't scorching hot, but still a steady power source with nine home runs since the break.
Mariano Rivera's second-half ERA is up over 3 and he had a blown save in Boston, but he's still 11 of 12 in his save chances, and the crew in front of him has been outstanding. Boone Logan, Luis Ayala and David Robertson are all getting steady work and all have second-half ERAs below 2.00. Corey Wade has become a reliable cog in the bullpen along with them. The depth in the bullpen is the answer to concerns about the durabilty of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia in the rotation. Come playoff time, starters only need to give 5-6 good innings and the pen can carry them home.
By Yankee standards, which is perfection and eliminating even the slightest possiblity of defeat, this team still has flaws, and they could be beaten by Texas or Boston in the playoffs. They may not win the AL East over the Red Sox. But they are coasting into October and whatever their problems, they have as good a chance as anyone to bring back at least another American League pennant and maybe even a 28th World Series title to the New House The Boss Built.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS PREVIEW
Indianapolis is a tough team to read as we come into the 2011 season. Their track record, and that of Peyton Manning demand respect. The Colts have been in the playoffs every year since 1999, and the quarterback has won a league-record four MVP awards. Indy won the division last year and was a play away from beating the Jets in the playoffs. Manning threw for over 4,000 yards despite seeing his receiving corps decimated by injuries. So what's the problem?
The problem is that Indy's getting old and it's happening on the offensive line. Jeff Saturday has been reliable at center, but how much longer can he keep going? There's question marks all over and rookies Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana are going to get opportunities to crack the lineup. The youth movement is needed, but it's not ideal for an organization that sets the Super Bowl as its goal, and it's certainly not ideal for a group entrusted with the protection of a veteran quarterback missing all of the preseason with a neck injury.
Indy also lacks a real playmaker in the secondary, something that's been the case since strong safety Bob Sanders began being hit by injuries. Sanders has been let go, and while the remaining group isn't going to get lit up, they don't have anyone who can make the kind of plays that a true championship team requires.
Those are the negatives. There's still plenty of positives, that obviously start with Manning and extend to the fact his receivers look to be healthy. The most important return is tight end Dallas Clark, who will again be available to bail this offense out and give opposing defenses a lot of hesitation about blitzing, lest Clark run free over the middle and barrell over defensive backs after the catch. A deep group of wideouts led by Reggie Wayne sees key supporting pieces in Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez come back. If Manning gets time he can still pick defenses apart. If he doesn't, he has a lot of targets skilled at getting open short who can get the ball on fast notice.
And the playmakers at defensive end are still on hand, with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. They pair up with a solid interior combo of Antonio Johnson and Tommie Harris. The linebacking corps lost reliable Clint Session, but Pat Angerer and Gary Brackett can at least make the plays that need to be made.
A great quarterback and potentially outstanding front four are the signs of a Super Bowl contender. An aging offensive line and potentially problematic secondary are signs of a team headed for a slide. Indianapolis has all of the above, and it promises an interesting year for the AFC South's flagship franchise.
DEFENSE HOLDS KEY TO USC'S REVIVAL
The purification of the USC football program under new athletic director Pat Haden began last year as the school began coping with the scholarship losses that are the legacy of repeated NCAA violations under Pete Carroll's regime. Lane Kiffin had a so-so year in 2010 dealing with a situation in turmoil. With the Pac-12 now ready to embark on a new era, with a divisional split and conference championship game setup, will the Trojans be a factor?
Talent is here, but it's nowhere near what it was even three years ago when Carroll won his last Rose Bowl. Matt Barkley is back at quarterback for his junior year, and while he continues to show potential and is a good college quarterback, he's never reached the levels projected for him out of college. In fairness to Barkley, the problems with the program he's in haven't helped. This year he's got all-conference receiver Robert Woods back in the fold and senior tight end Rhett Ellison. The running game will replaced Allen Bradford with Marc Tyler, though I suspect that won't cause any beats to be missed. With three returnees on the offensive line there should be enough stability to give the skill talent a fair chance to succeed
Defense is the forte of the Kiffin coaching family, with Lane's father Monte in charge and an NFL pedigree that includes a Super Bowl ring in Tampa Bay to back him up. Seniors Armond Armstead and DaJohn Harris key up what should be a good defensive front and there's a lot of experience at linebacker. The secondary offers both game experience and playmaking talent, led by All-Pac 10 free safety T.J. McDonald. The downside to all this? The Trojan defense was bad last year and at its worse when it came to holding leads late in games. Experience should bring improvement, but that will be enough to make a difference.
USC is still a good team that no one can go to sleep on, but they're a long, long way from even being a 10-win team, much less a national champion. And NCAA sanctions or no, that's the only standard the alumni here will settle for.
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