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Article:Down the Stretch

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AH, WHAT A NICE TIME of year for the pro sports fan here in New York. Baseball pennant races are ready to heat up in earnest, and in Flushing and the Bronx as well. Pro football is about to start its regular season, the U.S. Open just started here in Queens for all you tennis weenies out there, and the Olympics is finally, mercifully over. And oh what a regular human rights festival we had there in Beijing! That's just China being China, get used to it.

The big baseball questions here in New York can be reduced to two, I believe: Will the Yankees finally miss the playoffs this year after 14 straight years, and will the Mets collapse like a cardboard condo again this year? We're hoping the answers to those perplexing queries will be, respectively, Hell No and Fuck Yeah.

The Mets were on a nice little roll until this past weekend, when they lost 2 games to Houston. Yesterday's game in particular was a nasty one, with yet another stunning 9th inning bullpen collapse. The Metsies were out to a 3-0 lead early courtesy of a Carlos Beltran blast, and with Ollie Perez (who I predict will be a New York Yankee next year) dealing, I looked at the feeble 'Stros lineup and said to myself, Self, why are you wasting your time watching this? So I tuned out, only to find out later that the immortal Brad Ausmus and Darrin Erstad had dashed the Metsies' hopes on this cruel summer Sunday, taking Pedro Feliciano deep, or "going yard" as ESPN geeks might put it on Sportscenter. Then ex-Yank flop LaTroy Hawkins came in and shut the door, extending his Astros scoreless streak to 10 games. Yeah, this baseball season is not crazy...

So after getting the Mets got well against the little sisters of the poor -- aka Pittsburgh (57-73), Atlanta (57-73), and Washington (46-85) -- teams with a combined record of 71 games under .500, they ran into a decent Astros team (66-64), who took 2 of the first 3 games at Shea. The two teams play one more game tonight before the Metsies pack their duffel bags and head off to unfriendly Philly (71-59), with stops in Florida (67-64) and then Brewtown (76-55) to follow. We'll see if the Mets are the powerhouse their more unhinged fans claim they are or the dogs most Yankees fans hope they are.

Speaking of unhinged fans, you would think I would have my hands full with the Yankees doing all they can to keep their own heads above water. But after writing them off at least 3 times over the course of this long season, I'm ready to get back on the bandwagon. If I'm wrong, no one will remember, and if I'm right, well, I'm used to that by now.

Yanks find themselves in strange position of being underdogs down the stretch, what with Sid Ponson, Darrell Rasner, and Carl Pavano manning the rotation. Three games at home against the Red Sox kick off the last 32 games of the year. Yanks need a sweep, will settle for 2 out of 3, but a sweep the other way and it's Nellie, Bar the Door. That Yankees bandwagon will be emptier than a Mitt Romney campaign promise.

Daily News' Bill Madden gave more ammo to all the Brian Cashman haters out there, and we know who we are, in his Sunday column, as part of a longer piece chronicling the "demise" of the Yankee empire. Madden did not paint a pretty picture of the young talent in the Yankees system, nor did he pull any punches in Cashman's direction. Regarding the minor league pipeline of young players, there's just one teeny problem: there is none, and according to Madden, the fault lies not in our (lack of young) stars, but in our Cashman:

> "It would be nice if they had a couple of young position players like the Mets' Murphy and Evans coming in the system, but they do not. They do not have a first baseman to replace Jason Giambi, or an impact center fielder, or a shortstop to spell (and eventually replace) Derek Jeter, or a second baseman who could enable them to deal the enigmatic Cano while he still has value. > > The reason they don't have any of these players in their system is because they continue to do a terrible job of scouting and developing. They spend millions more in Latin America than almost every other team and yet the only position players from there to make the big club over the last 10 years are Alfonso Soriano, Cano and Melky Cabrera. The draft? An even bigger disgrace. Jeter, in 1992, is the last player they drafted who became a regular. > > And the beat goes on. In this year's draft, the Yankees took pitchers with their first three picks: No. 1, Gerrit Cole, whom they did not sign because their scouts obviously didn't get to know the kid's makeup or his family situation; No. 2, Jeremy Bleich, who's going to need Tommy John surgery; and No. 3, Scott Bittle, whose arm problems were so severe they elected to pass on signing him. > > After a while, you have to wonder what fatal attraction Cashman's player evaluators have with injured pitchers. Last year, they took North Carolina State righthander Andrew Brackman in the first round, knowing he was going to miss all of this season with Tommy John surgery. And, then, of course, there's the immortal Humberto Sanchez, purportedly the key return player in the Gary Sheffield deal with Detroit, who also underwent Tommy John surgery and is still rehabbing somewhere. > > Cashman keeps stockpiling pitchers who come up hurt or fall on their face when they get to the big leagues. Enough! He is banking on the offense coming back next year, even though everyone will be a year older and there is nobody to step in when the inevitable injuries come. Off the way this season has gone, with young, homegrown teams such as the Rays and Twins giving their owners so much more bang for their buck, the Yankees returning to power would be an even bigger surprise."

When I saw Osi Umenyiora being helped off the field the other night against the Jets, I knew right away it was serious. If a player makes it off the field without any help, it's usually not too bad an injury. As he was being carted off, he didn't appear to be in great pain, but somehow this one didn't look good, for the Giants at least, right from the proverbial get-go.

I'll be honest, because the alternative is to be a hypocrite: As a Dallas Cowboy fan, I'm happy anytime a star player from a rival team goes down; that's just the way it is. But in my opinion, Osi is overrated. He's a good pash rusher who doesn't really play the run that well, unlike the retired Mike Strahan, who was a more complete player any way you slice it. I always looked at Osi as the black Mark Gastineau: He got the flashy numbers, but what about all the other plays where he doesn't get the sack?


Umenyiora had 13 sacks last season and had an All-Pro year, but I don't consider him an All-Pro. Put it this way, I think Strahan was a better player than Umenyiora, but Jason Tuck has the skills to be better than Osi and perhaps even as good as Strahan. And that's coming from an objective Cowboy fan, remember.

The other guy the Giants are counting on, Mathias Kiwanuka, let's face it is still an unknown quantity. Giants have already announced they are moving him back from LB to his more natural position, DE. Any way you slice it, the Giants are presently without 23 sacks from last year, and sacks don't grow on trees.

All anybody wants to talk about when Umenyiora's name comes up is that fluky 6-sack game against the Eagles last year, the one where he lined up against 3rd-string OT Winston "Turnstile" Justice, not the 4 playoff games where he had 7 tackles and came up totally sackless. A good player, one opposing offenses have to contend with, but not the major force some would make him out to be.

Something tells me Giants will be this year's version of last year's Miami Heat. That post-championship year can sometimes be a case of a team crashing back to earth, especially one that played way, way over its head.

Even if Strahan comes back, he's not close enough to football shape, and perhaps the right mental state, to be as effective as he was last year. You can take that to the bank, or at least the drive-through teller, if you're so inclined, because if and when Mike Strahan comes back, you can bet it's all about the crazy money the Giants are about to throw at him more than his love of the game. Just one man's considerably informed opinion. Let me throw a few crazy baseball stats, because my extensive market research tells me the kids go silly for that kind of stuff...

Going into yesterday's game, Mets had attempted only 2 steals in their last 11 games. How can that be? Phillies' Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Chase Utley all over 30 HRs already, and their 95 HRs is more than Washington Nationals' entire team at 91 and maybe some other teams but right now I'm not quite interested to look it up. Mets offense worst in baseball over last 3 innings (your 7th, 8th and 9th for those keeping score), which isn't helping their suspect bullpen put any games away, that's for sure.

[2] Cubs' Carlos Zambrano has now hit 4 HRs this year, tying alltime record for HRs in a season with a good 6 weeks left. The same game he tied the HR record was Zambrano's 7th straight start with an RBI, which may be almost as remarkable as the HR record. Zambrano, 13-5 as a pitcher, is the biggest two-way threat in baseball since George Herman Ruth played for the Red Sox.

Phillies will have already played the new Manny Dodgers 8 times after tonight, while the Mets not only haven't played L.A. since the big trade, and I'll be damned if they don't have to play them the rest of the season. There's always the NL playoffs, though...

By the way, since the trade, in 22 games Ramirez is hitting .380 with 6 HRs and 21 RBIs; while in 21 games for Boston, Jason Bay is hitting .333 with 4 HRs and 18 RBI. Pretty even...

Not a stat per se, but I have a feeling Xavier Nady is the new Paul O'Neill: professional, deadly serious, still young player in the middle of the offense for years. Counting both his Bucs and Yanks numbers, Nady has hit .328, 21 HRs and 80 RBI. Just like O'Neill, Nady switched leagues and was about the same age (29) as O'Neill when he was traded from the Reds for Roberto Kelly.

According to my sources, Mets up 3-0 over Astros, courtesy a Carlos Delgado HR. Delgado, you might remember, is the guy Mets fans booed relentlessly and wanted to run out of town two months ago. Thought he was finished? His hot streak made him a lot of money next year and probably one last big contract.

Let me give you a football stat that's been eating a hole in my mental pocket the whole offseason: In their fluky, lucky win against Dallas in last year's playoffs, the Giants vaunted offense gained a total of... 52 yards. That's right, 52 total yards in the second half, yet somehow the Giants walked out of Texas Stadium with the unlikely W instead of the L they so richly deserved.

Now the offseason is winding down, the real games about 10 days away, and finally a chance for redemption, another shot at glory and the beginning of the war of attrition that is the NFL season. For the most part the Cowboys bring back the same 13-win team, with a much-improved secondary led by Pacman Jones and some high draft picks. Gone are the horrendous Nate Jones and Jacques Reeves, who gave Giants receivers so much cushion in that playoff game that they were barely in the same zip code at times.

Speaking of good offseasons, the Philly Sixers, a team on the rise if there ever was such a thing, made what I think are 4 solid moves since their season ended with a decent showing in the playoffs against the Detroit Pistons.

First, they managed to finally be free of enough cap room to add Elton Brand to the team in free agency, a major addition to an already talented team. Next, they lock up Andre Iguodola with a long-term contract, giving themselves a 24-year-old stud to build around. Then they return one of my all-time favorite players, Theo Ratfliff, admittedly well past his prime, but perhaps capable of 10-12 minutes a night, some big rebounds, a shot block or two. Nice touch, Ed Stefanski. And finally I read where Jeff Ruland will be joining the coaching staff, which ought to help out the big men like Sam Dalambert. Add it all up, and why can't the 76ers be one of the top teams in the East for years to come, if not the top team? I can't think of a single good reason, and admit it, even you Knicks fans can't either.

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