Phils Need Page From Eagles Playbook.

Time To Beat Up on the Giants.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but those Atlanta Braves are awfully pesky.  After the Phils quickly trimmed a six game deficit to a couple of games a week or two ago, the Braves have matched the Phillies win for win.  Their own hot streak has had some particularly hard to swallow wins for Phils fans, the latest of which came last night on another blown save by the Dodgers.  I suppose that’s just the baseball gods evening things out, though.  So the Phillies still have plenty of time to reel in Atlanta, but it could end up being a harder task than many expect.  With that in mind, the Phillies need a back-up plan.  Securing the wild-card position is the first step to making the post-season and the Phillies find themselves tied with the Giants with San Francisco coming to town for a crucial three game series.

From my safe perch atop the East Coast bias tower I can spit out some generalities about the Giants.  They have good starting pitching, they’re extremely tough at home, their offense lacks a little kick…things of that nature.  The Giants aren’t a team that scares you, especially when the rotation sets up to miss Tim Lincecum, but then again who in the National League is really scary?  The Giants are in contention, and if the Phillies are going to get a handle on the wild-card before running down Atlanta, it will help if they win this series.  As I said there will be no Lincecum and no Halladay either, still plenty of storylines to boost this mid-week clash of 2nd place teams.

In Philadelphia, we’re on Utley and Howard watch.  The two major offensive weapons for the Phils have been out for some time, Utley much longer than Howard, but there is word they could both return this week.  Whether or not it is in time for the Giants isn’t as important as just getting them back in the order and sitting down Wilson Valdez and Mike Sweeney (no offense, guys).  Howard has been testing his injured ankle for a few days, and Chase Utley has been on a rehab assignment in Clearwater.  My gut feeling is that a return by Utley this week would be a little rushed, maybe not in a health sense, but in a baseball sharpness sense.  As much as I love Chase, I’d rather see him knock off the rust with 20 Minor League ABs, rather than working through it during an important series.  Howard’s shorter DL stint and power make him a no-brainer to insert back into the lineup as soon as possible.

The Giants arrive in town with some interesting faces.  Pat Burrell returns with a fresh bounce in his step as the Giants left-fielder.  Burrell is one of the most interesting cases of player/fan interaction in this city’s history.  For every “they booed Don McNabb” story there should be one on how the fans babied Burrell through a miserable .209 season.   It was strange to see, as is the outpouring of love Burrell usually receives when he returns to town.  I suppose he just came along at the right time, the team was showing signs of improvement, and the fans wanted so badly for him to be a superstar, but it didn’t quite work out.  I expect another warm reception tonight, though.  If you aren’t a Burrell sympathizer, perhaps you’ll be interested in seeing the Giants stand-out rookie, Buster Posey.  Posey has been electric since his mid-season call-up, and gives the Giants lineup some much-needed punch.  This isn’t like years past when they were Panda Sandoval and 8 outs.

In terms of pitching match-ups, the series may well hinge on who gets the better of Zito/Oswalt in the opener tonight.  Lil’ Roy was excellent in his home debut, and will be looked upon for a similar performance.  Zito has had a resurgence of sorts this season, and a sloppy left-hander always makes me a bit nervous against the Phillies.  After tonight, you’d probably give an edge to Matt Cain on Wednesday, and a slight one to Cole Hamels on Thursday.  The Phillies will need to give Cole some support, of course, and I think the pitching (maybe even Joe Blanton) will be good in this series.  It’ll likely come down to who can put a couple of runs on the board, and how the Phillies’ bullpen responds.

I’ve been predicting a lot of 2 of 3s lately.  Slow and steady, just win the series, and that’s what the Phillies need to do here.  Keep chipping away, hope the Nats can play spoiler.

America’s Favorite Regional Sport.

Big Year, Big Fans Down in Alabammy.

It feels like every national publication I pick up these days is overflowing with some type of college football preview. My Sporting News has the season broken down every which way you could imagine.  This would always be the case this time of year, but I think this season, since it is the start of a new decade, and because of the shifting conference landscapes the previews are a little more hyped than usual.  I am sensing the excitement on the periphery, but I am having trouble feeling it on a personal level.  This isn’t college football country.

Philadelphia is a pro football city, and like much of the region we are consumed by the NFL.  As I get older, and actually follow a narrower spectrum of sports, I find college football is being pushed into college basketball territory.  I know the major players, I’ll be there for the big games, but this isn’t the Southeast.  And it’s not Texas or Oklahoma either.  It’s not State College, or Ann Arbor, or even Los Angeles.  I’m pretty far away from the regional college football hotbeds.  I could be missing out.  The things I am supposed to care about…

1.   Alabama and Florida vs. The Rest of the World.  We’re several years into a perceived SEC dominance.  That’s been elevated to the point where some will tell you whoever emerges from the Alabama/Florida game will be the country’s best team.   Alabama has replaced USC as the National Champion that brings back an even more talented squad.  We’re talking back-to-back titles and possibly back-to-back  Heismans for Mark Ingram.  Is Florida the only team with a shot to derail the Tide?  Is the SEC really that good, or is it just the most top-heavy league in the country.

2.  Terrelle Pryor, Take III.  It’s about time for the Ohio State quarterback to make good on all this promise, right?  With Tim Tebow taking up residence in Denver, someone has to become the most famous quarterback in college football.  There are a lot of candidates, and most of them have more pro-value than Pryor, but Terrelle could be the most dangerous weapon at the college level.  With OSU competing against a sub-par Big 10, this could be the season Pryor takes a big step forward, and throws his hat into the Heisman ring.

3.  What’s Brian Kelly going to do at Notre Dame?  This won’t be Kelly’s team.  It will be him trying to pick up someone else’s pieces, which is becoming a popular theme in South Bend.  It won’t really be fair to judge him this season, but he’ll be judged plenty.  Does anyone else feel like Notre Dame is a little bit like Tiger Woods without the scandalous embarrassment? There’s the Notre Dame will rise again camp, but also the people who wonder if Notre Dame will ever be a dominant program again.  If you want my opinion, remember I suggested Kelly stay at Cincinnati.  You all called me an idiot, but that was my actual, real-life opinion.

4.  Boise State has become Gonzaga.  It’s the plight of the non-BCS school.  They can’t schedule anyone.  They go undefeated.  They don’t get any National Title consideration, and the cycle repeats.  Boise State has slowly gained respect through the years though with continued success and bowl wins.  They’re so highly regarded at this point that they occupy a top-5 spot in most pre-season polls.  I guess they aren’t exactly sneaking up on anyone.  I say Gonzaga, because there is still one more step for them to make.  Gonzaga never took it.  They remain highly regarded, they are no longer Cinderella, but they also have never really won anything.  Is that Boise’s fate as well?  Part of me thinks they still aren’t getting the athletes, and aren’t tested enough to really make this happen.

5.  How Badly will the BCS gork it this year?  A couple of my previous points play right into this one.  There’s a good chance that Ohio State could emerge undefeated from a relatively weak Big-10.  That always agitates the critics.  Meanwhile, the SEC is likely to be a war no one will survive unscathed, and perhaps the same could be said for the Big-12.  Are we headed toward another 1-loss logjam?  Where will Boise or another non-BCS team fit into things?  Did the Texas/Alabama match-up play out a little too easily last season?  I think we might be due for a big, big, mess.  Of course, as someone who compared college football to college basketball, I’m obviously dying for a playoff.