Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tiger Did What?!?

Today marked the start of the first Major golf tournament Tiger Woods played in since April’s Masters. His long lay off from knee, calf, achillies, sex, and caddy issues ended last week in a lackluster performance at the WGC Firestone Invitational. Woods had won that event 7 times prior to last week and has won over $9 million at that tournament alone. I shrugged off his above par (can’t use subpar to mean bad in golf) performance as rust. I knew he probably did not have a great shot at winning this week at “Glory’s Last Shot” aka the season’s final major, but I still thought he would compete.

I woke up to a text from my father that said Tiger tees off at 8:30 am and the coverage does not start until 1 pm. He is on vacation this week and able to watch a lot more than usual, so he was rather frustrated by the timing of things. Luckily for him, there was great online coverage that was solely following Tiger’s group of seemingly over-the-hill stars of the PGA tour. Woods was playing with former major winners Davis Love 3rd and Paddy Harrington. Tiger’s round started like any other major that he played (circa 2000) and he rolled in a 20 footer for birdie on the 10th hole, his first of the day. A par followed, and then another birdie and he was looking good at 2 under through 3 holes. Woods then made mince meat out of the par 4 14th hole and stuck his approach to 5 feet on his way to his third birdie in 5 holes and, believe it or not, he had a brief share of the lead at that point. Man, I looked at his scorecard at that point and I had the same feeling I have when Ryan Howard hits a home run. It is excitement coupled with the fact that your favorite player is doing what you want him to do. If you’re a big sports fan, it does not get much better than this feeling. So, from the highest of highs at this juncture in the round, Tiger Woods fell, and fell quickly. I could come up with any cliche in the book to explain what happened to Woods from that point on, especially for a man who was once indestructible. So I’ll let this clip do the talking. America was collectively playing the David Spade role in that scenario. Woods D-RAILED after his hot start.

He had to have been feeling good standing on the 15th tee at 3 under par and swinging the club well. The 15th is a ridiculously long par 3, 260 yards (longest in major championship history, to be exact) with water right and trouble left. For a long time I have been a firm proponent that a real man does not hit a wood off a par 3 tee (much to the chagrin of my distance challenged father), but even I may have made an exception on this one. Woods did not, and his tee shot on this hole was the beginning of a very ugly end. I assume he hit a 2 iron, if he carries one, if not it was a 3, but he flared it out to the right and it found the water hazard. He then had a 100 yard shot and a chance to get up and down to save bogey. He yanked that 15 feet left of the pin and then left his bogey putt a foot short. I’m not sure if you are aware, but 90% of putts left short don’t go in. It was just as much a mental mistake for Woods to leave that putt short as it was physical. Nevertheless, he had the hot start so he was still 1 under par and not out of anything. Woods found a fairway bunker with his next drive which led to another bogey and dropped him to even par for the tournament. No big deal, it’s Tiger Woods, he’ll right the ship. Well, from there he actually wronged the ship. He made par at 17 and then, brace yourself, he went double bogey at 18, bogey at 1, and another bogey at 2. That is a 6 hole stretch played in 7 over par, and he wasn’t done yet. After a par on the third hole, he bogeyed 4, and then he made a nice birdie at the par 5 5th to get him to +4 through 14 holes and hopefully give him some momentum. Unfortunately, he blocked his umpteenth drive of the day right into a bunker and did a nice job of catching his approach fat and letting it land a good 20 yards short of the green in the water. Another. Double. Bogey. He managed to make pars at 7 and 8, but for good measure he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker on 9 and made bogey for an opening round 7 over 77, that’s an avalanche of strokes. Take a look at this scorecard, to borrow a phrase from the Rolling Stones, she’s like a rainbow. If only he could have thrown an eagle in there we would have seen the entire color spectrum on that card. Sheesh. 3 doubles, 5 bogeys, and 4 birdies do not make for a happy Tiger.

I made it home for lunch when the television coverage started at 1 pm and they were showing the high, I mean lowlights of his round. I was shocked by his body language. I was expecting Happy Gilmore, or at least Tiger Woods like outbursts and temper tantrums, but he was for the most part stoic while hitting shit shot after shit shot. Not Tiger’s style. I don’t assume to know what goes through Tiger Woods’ head, but when he was winning once every three or four starts and apparently sleeping with any woman who gave him a second look, he had to have been thinking about a lot out there right? Woods had to have been really good at compartmentalizing everything that was going on in his life. He was obviously juggling a wife (who figured out what he was doing eventually), two kids, an endless string of extramarital affairs, and oh yeah, being the best damn golfer who ever lived. Now, what’s going on in his life? He fired his caddy. Charles Barkley has publicly called him out for not being a good friend. He fired his swing coach. He has been hurt, or sort of hurt, for three years, and he has not won a tournament for two. The only things he has to worry about now are his kids and his game. I am not in any way recommending doing what Tiger Woods did off the course, but you have to wonder if the thrill and excitement of all the play he was getting while sneaking around kept him sharp on the course. Because right now, he ain’t crisp.

Reader Participation - Take another look at the picture at the top of the blog. At that point in the round he is riding high at 3 under par, and although he probably did not know it, he briefly held the lead for a few minutes. In the comment section, give me your best caption for this picture.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

It's Hunting Season

For the first time in recent memory I did not think the Phillies needed to add anybody to their roster in a trade deadline deal. The Phils have had the best record in baseball for almost the entire season and they did that without getting much of anything from one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Roy Oswalt. Oswalt will be back in the rotation starting this week after missing the last two months with back issues. Phillies GMs have had busy Julys for the last five plus years, if my memory serves me correctly, the Phils added Jamie Moyer in 2006, Kyle Loshe in 2007, “Fat” Joe Blanton in 2008, a washed up but wily Pedro Martinez in 2009, and of course Roy Oswalt in 2010. I’m not sure of the exact number, but that is probably something like 500 combined wins from those pitchers in their careers. Each year I was excited by the moves, to varying degrees, I mean how excited could you be when you get a chubby guy from Oakland who was 4-12 with a 5+ ERA at the time (Blanton), or some guy who made his first ever start against Steve Carlton (Moyer), but nevertheless I thought all of the moves were justified and would help us. With the exception of the stink bomb Pedro threw up in the deciding game six of the 09 World Series, and a shaky start from Loshe in the 2007 sweep at the hands of the Rockies, these guys came through. Hell, Blanton hit a World Series home run. But this year I thought was different. All five of those acquired players were pitchers, and as the saying goes you can never have enough pitching, but the Phillies are as close as you can be to proving that saying wrong. I know the offense has struggled at times, but I did not want to give up on Dom Brown despite the fact that he catches every fly ball like he is scared that he is going to completely miss it and it could hit him in the head. Have you seen his move where he will catch a ball that is on the left side of his body with his lanky right arm reaching all the way across his even lankier frame as if he couldn’t possibly get underneath the damn thing? What’s he thinkin there?!? His penchant for popping up foul to the third baseman with some sort of back-elbow-dipping loopy swing was freaking me out as well, but I digresse. I also thought the emergence of Vance Worley was too much of a good thing to give up on immediately even though there is a large likelihood that his stock is as high as it will ever be. So, whenever anybody asked me, “Who do you want to see us get?” or “What do you think we need?” I told them all that I think we should stand pat because if we can’t win with this team, we can’t win. Period.

Quick tangent. Can anybody believe the Yankees did not make a move at the deadline? Their GM’s name is CASH(!)man. I just hope they know starting CC in three out of five games in the ALDS could be detrimental to his health.

Everybody knows that the bearded flight of Jayson Werth to Citizen’s Bank Park South, erruhh Nationals Park left a sizeable void in the fifth spot in the Phillies lineup. If a righty starts against the Phillies, the lineup is chock full of left-handed bats. Most notably their run producing, All-Star combo of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Their spots as the number three and four hitters respectively are non-negotiable in the batting order when they are healthy. Werth created the ideal situation as a protector of these two, a right-handed power bat who worked counts and struck a solid amount of fear into opposing pitchers. It was a huge bonus to know that if a manager brought in a lefty to face Utley and Howard, he would have to make another trip out if Utley and Howard did any damage because that manager would not want to give Werth the opportunity to hit a southpaw. Werth provided possibly the most important asset this offense needs: protection for The Big Piece. If you watch the game, it is clear that Ryan Howard would much rather hit fastballs off the face of the bricks out in center than flail away helplessly because some goofy looking dude sprinted in from the bullpen and threw him Frisbee like breaking balls down and away. Have you seen that happen? So Charlie has used a lot of different guys in the five hole this year, mostly Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez. They did a decent enough job, but the lineup certainly did not have the same feel as it did the past few years with the Utley, Howard, Werth trio penciled in at 3, 4, and 5. I did not think that this mattered though because of the studs we had on the hill each night.

The two biggest names being bandied about as July wore on were the Mets’ rightfielder and consummate under-achiever Carlos Beltran and the “tweaker” as my friends lovingly refer to as Hunter Pence. Beltran is a proven commodity and brings five tools to the table but is only under contract for the rest of the season and an acquisition of him would basically equate to a 2 (to 3) month rental. Also, Beltran signed a giant contract and had solid years for the Mets but you never felt like he was playing up to what he was capable of, save his first year as a Met, and the first half of this season. Other than his contract status, the main knock on Beltran was that he was a Met. And that’s all I have to say about that. Hunter Pence was a guy that I feared in Houston. I knew he looked, threw, and ran in an unorthodox manner but I also knew he was a .300 hitter with power who could also steal some bases. Nevertheless, I was standing firm in my assertion that we were fine as is.

Then, while we were in the midst of a three game series against the San Francisco Giants, the team that beat us in the NLCS last year and went on to win the World Series, the team that boasted nobody with more than nine home runs at the time of the trade, the team that had enough pitching despite their putrid (if you think the Phillies are frustrating on offense you would not want to live in San Fran, as I write this the Giants have scored 384 runs compared to the Phillies 471) offense to sit atop the NL West, yeah, that team, went out and picked up Carlos Beltran. He immediately became their leader or second best player in every meaningful offensive category; batting average, home runs, RBIs, on base %, OPS, you name it (oh yeah, he leads the NL in doubles). Needless to say, this was a big time acquisition for the only team the Phillies have a right to not feel absolutely great about facing in the playoffs. This move forced Phils’ GM Ruben Amaro’s hand. To use another gratuitous poker reference, the Phils are pot committed on this season and it would be alright for them to mortgage a bit of their future in order to win it all this season. The same is true for the next two seasons. Too much money is invested on players that are nearing the end of their primes for the Phils to not lay it all on the line each season. Although I did not necessarily want to get rid of Vance Worley or Domonic Brown, for the reasons above I knew I would grit and bare it if they had to go in order to get Pence. Luckily, Ruben Amaro appears to be one of these, and we landed what is possibly the best possible fit for our offense in Hunter Pence without giving up any Major League players. Maybe Ed Wade is just one of these though, either way I’ll take it (Ed Wade is former Phillies GM and current Houston Astros GM). So, the Phils acquired Hunter Pence on Friday night and he was in uniform for Saturday night’s game against the Pirates. The Phils are 4-0 with Pence in the lineup and he got to play in two come-from-behind extra inning wins on Sunday and Monday. What must be going through that kid’s head? He went from the worst team in baseball to the best team in baseball. The Phils last two wins are the kind of wins they will talk about on the 2011 season DVD. Right now the Phils are finding ways to win. One 2-run homer at a time.

Update - Howard has obviously benefitted from Hunter Pence's presence behind him in the lineup. Since Pence joined the team, Howard has gone 9-22 with 4 home runs, 4 doubles, and 9 RBIs. The Phils have won six straight, sweeping both the Pirates and the Rockies, and Pence has yet to lose a game as a Phillie.