There’s always that magical week or weekend when the days get shorter…it gets chillier by the pool and football preview magazines begin to take precedence over the crossword/summer reading. While September 21st is almost two months away, late July marks the end of one season– and the beginning of the onramp to the marathon/sprint that is college and pro football. Is it really time- can’t I get just one more week?

The Redskins are in Richmond with a new regime; Jay Gruden sorts through a pretty decent cupboard left by Mike Shanahan. Say what you will about last year’s 3-13 descent from awesome expectations to awful execution…not all 3-13’s are created alike. And this team is one year removed from winning the NFC East. The major question is, which year was the outlier–2012 or 2013?

Prepare for the Positive– it’s almost fitting that training camp takes place when the skies are sunniest and the temperatures are highest. EVERYBODY is optimistic. Even teams that are in their 3rd “five year plan” since 2010. That’s the beauty of the NFL– worst to first is not an anomaly: you can almost guarantee that we’ll have 4-6 different playoff teams this winter. Last fall saw Kansas City go from 2-14 to the playoffs…so even a Houston that lost 14 straight can have hope. Or a Redskins team that crash-landed with 8 straight losses…

What to Watch For–OFFENSE:
Life begins with RG3–HOW healthy and ready will the face of the franchise be? How will the new Jay Gruden system maximize his strengths and limit his weaknesses? Will we see rookies Spencer Long or Morgan Moses push the starters on the offensive line or be routed into the “rookie year learning laboratory” that’s high on enrichment but low on game-snaps? And what’s the deal with Jerry Rice Junior? Is the undrafted rookie good enough to leapfrog Andre Roberts and Ryan Grant–or is he more Pete Rose Jr than Eduardo Perez? (if he were Griffey Jr he would have been taken first overall by Houston, set the world on fire, before eventually returning to San Francisco where he would’ve never been healthy)

What to Watch For–DEFENSE:
It’s Jim Haslett’s turn to shine. Year five of the 3-4 means execution and not excuses: of the projected week one starters only Kedric Golston and Bryan Orakpo pre-date his arrival– and if they didn’t fit his vision they’d be gone by now. Will Jason Hatcher recover from surgery in time to be a factor in September? Even healthy, Hatcher has to change from being a tackle in a 4-3 to a three-man front. How much will the linebackers miss the leadership of London Fletcher? Even at the end of his career, the John Carroll University product was averaging 7 tackles a game while holding together a unit under siege. The biggest questions aren’t necessarily about the 3-4…it’s the 4 behind them. Can Deangelo Hall, Ryan Clark and Brandon Merriweather still contribute as starters in this league? After losing his rookie season to injury, will Phillip Thomas be more rusty or ready? Can Bacarri Rambo live up to having the coolest name on the team? (sadly,
having an awesome name is almost a curse: Notre Dame’s Hiawatha Francisco, Baylor’s J.J. Joe and Nebraska’s I.M. Hipp never lived up to their names in the pros)

What to Watch For–SPECIAL TEAMS:
The kicking game can’t be the absolute disaster it was last year…right? From coughing up game-changing returns to allowing kicks blocked…2013 was a major nightmare for the Burgundy and Gold. Can they identify the right guys to be put in place on these units? Meanwhile, Saved by the Bell meets Karate Kid. Is there actually a kicking competition between Kai Forbath and seventh round pick Zach Hocker? Despite making 35 of 40 career attempts (numbers that would make Ali with an I swoon), the Johnny Lawrence of accuracy is Daniel LaRusso-like when it comes to kickoffs. Will Zach be accurate enough to make his kickoff length a factor in late August? (never count out a Zach–from fronting a band to a foiling diamond thieves to hitting on homeless girls at the mall)

After the 11th inning loss Monday night the Nationals are now 0-9 at home in extra-inning affairs.  This evening they battle not just the Birds but also a weather pattern…as inclement weather pushes back the start of Tuesday’s tilt with the Orioles from its original 7:05pm gametime.  A similar situation existed last week when Doug Fister pitched–and the fast-working starter was still able to get everybody home early.

 

Mound Matchup– Fister (7-2, 2.93 ERA) won his last start…scattering 7 hits over 7 innings (3ER allowed) in a victory over Colorado.  In four starts against the Orioles from 2011-13, Fister is 2-2 with an ERA of 6.46.  Bud Norris (7-5, 3.62 ERA) won four straight starts before going on the disabled list with a groin injury late last month.  He makes his first start since June 21st-weather permitting.

 

Soccer’s Slaughter— the Amazon River deposits over 200,000 cubic meters of water per second in the Atlantic Ocean.  Brazil’s tears might account for more than that this evening.  A 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals of soccer’s World Cup effectively ends the 2014 games;  there may be a semifinal, third place and championship match remaining on the schedule but you tell that to a nation that just had its heart ripped out and stomped on.  Brazil is the Kentucky basketball of soccer– a nation that’s been great enough in its past to have ridiculously high expectations (even when they’re not warranted).  Some say it took a half-century (and 3 titles plus Pele being the best player in the world) for Brazil to get over its 1950 loss in the finals to Uruguay.  The 21st century fan has a shorter memory, but this one will sting for some time.

About Extra Time— I wish penalty kicks weren’t the way to decide elimination matches after the 30 minutes of extra time.  I know I’m not currently on the FIFA rules board and likely will not be in the near future.  Can we end matches on the full field of 6,000 yards as opposed to a 48 yard triangle in front of the net?  If you’re worried about players being too gassed after 120+ minutes… give teams the option to play whomever they want at the beginning of “extra time” with their three substitutions back for the next 90 minutes (keep the 15 minute periods if you like).  Go to the “golden goal/sudden victory” tiebreaker as well and you give soccer’s highest level the ending it merits.

 

 

 

Timing might not be everything…but it can always provide a boost.  Instead of slumping or limping into their Interleague series, the Nationals and Orioles enter this week each having won 7 of 10;  the O’s own a 2-game lead in the AL East while the Nats are a half game behind Atlanta in the NL East.  The odds of this being an October preview are as high as other “regional rivalries” like Oakland-San Francisco or Dodgers-Angels (although the A’s and Giants are a combined 32 games over .500, the LA teams are a combined 26 games in the black and the Nats and O’s are a modest 17 games over the break-even mark).
 
For the next four nights it’ll be a combination of O’s hitting against Nats pitching:  the Birds rank 3rd in hitting, 5th in slugging and 8th in scoring while the Nationals rate 1st in ERA, 6th in quality starts and 11th in opposition batting average.  It’s a shame Jordan Zimmermann (1.26 ERA over last 7 starts) won’t be on the hill against the O’s.  It’ll also be a contrast of relief corps:  the Nationals rank 3rd in bullpen ERA while the Orioles rate 16th in the bigs (fresh off blowing a 5-run lead Sunday in Boston). 
 
Nats knocking on wood– you’d have to after the first half they had injury-wise.  Now that all 8 regulars are healthy, we’re beginning to see Manager Matt Williams massage the lineups (Zimmerman, Harper and Rendon moving around for defensive purposes late).  The fact that Buck Showalter has to fiddle with a DH-less lineup the first two nights provides a little advantage to the home team. Nelson Cruz (and his 27HRs + 71RBI) has played 39 games in LF and 8 more in RF…so it’s not as though he’ll have to break in a glove.
 
Monday’s Mound Matchup–  Stephen Strasburg (7-6, has been somewhat streaky this year despite going 2-2 in April, May and June:  after the team split his first four starts, the Nats won four straight Strasburg starts only to lose the next three.  The next three times Strasburg pitched the Nats won before they lost his next three outings.  Strasburg beat Colorado last Tuesday (striking out 8 over 6.2 IP) so I guess this means the pendulum is in positive territory.  Chris Tillman (7-4, 4.21) has won two straight decisions and is 6-0 on the road this season…and he’ll be facing a lineup without a DH in DC.
 
Seinfeld’s Silver Celebration– I remember when Seinfeld came out in the summer of 1989– I wasn’t impressed.  I found the premise okay–“how does a comedian get his material?” but found the execution somewhat forced.  The cast–I had no confidence in whatsoever:  Jerry’s TV record was a few episodes of Benson as the Governor’s joke-writer…but none of his jokes were funny and he was erased from the Gatling Administration in Kremlin fashion.  Elaine?  Wasn’t she being played by that woman from “SNL: the embarassing years”?  Couldn’t they have gotten Mary Gross or Robin Duke (come on– Alfalfa and Wendy Whiner were all-time characters!) instead?  George– or should I say “Woody Allen Knockoff”– was being played by the guy from failed TV show “Everything’s Relative”.  UGH.  And Kramer had a surreal resemblance to “Reverend Jim” from “TAXI”…”WHAT DOES A YELLOW LIGHT MEAN?”.  I gave the Sein a yellow light early on. 
 
What won me over?  A Saturday Night Live appearance by Jerry in the spring of ’92 rolled out the classic sketch “Stand Up and Win”– a Jeopardyesque game show where every category, question and answer were in the form of a stand-up comedy bit.  I checked out the show and found that it had hit its stride (still very tough watching the first season or two before it found its balance).  For the next 5+ years I was invested every Wednesday at 9…and eventually Thursday at 9:30 and then 9 once Cheers went off the air.
 
Things that still hit me today– while the ability to coin a multiple catch-phrases was what kept the show on the water-cooler front-burner, the multi-tiered plots and strong guest cast were what did it for me.  For a show that was “about nothing” there were more than a few threads each week to follow and the producers always seemed to not only identify memorable guest stars but bring them back (Bania, Tim Whatley, Jackie Chiles, Susan Ross) for increasingly amusing dividends.  It’s an embarrassment of riches I see each time I check out a rerun.  That’s gold, Jerry…

July begins with a BANG! as the “sports offseason” is rather busy on multiple fronts.  What to do as I try to get my poolside summer reading done…

 

It’s almost fitting that it took until the 82nd game (one after the midpoint) that the Nationals Opening Day Eight finally played a full nine together.  Big Red Machine, they’re not…but you need healthy components to be successful in the NL East race.  Bryce Harper’s return (1-3 with 1 run and an RBI) provided some pop and extends the lineup (Desmond hitting 7th is always nice) while providing manager Matt Williams options against tough lefties (Zim to 1st while LaRoche rests his legs), righties (Harper to CF while Span takes a seat), American League parks (Zim DH’s) and tough pitchers in general (Rendon to 2B while Espinosa slows down his 186 strikeout pace).  Hopefully Jordan Zimmermann can keep up what was an incredible June (six starts, a 1.43 ERA with opponents batting .192).  Will Harper’s attitude in wanting to play CF and bat higher than sixth hurt the club?  I’m happy to see a player of his potential want to hit higher and play a more demanding defensive position…but the key is playing his way into both spots.

 

Despite a Tigerless weekend after Mr. Woods was unable to shake three months rust and a Friday where the notables weren’t on the leaderboard but below the cut-line (Major winners Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Mike Weir, Keegan Bradley and  Jason Dufner)…at least Sunday at Congressional Country Club began with a former US Amateur Champ atop the leaderboard.  But Ricky Barnes bogeyed consecutive holes on the front nine…and after getting back to 6 under par carded consecutive double-bogeys on the back nine.  Opening the window for Justin Rose…who somehow bounced back from a Thursday 74 (same score as Tiger) to shoot 65, 71 and 70.  That final round placed him one shot ahead of Shawn Stefani (sounds like a designer accessory, but he’s actually a 2-time winner on the web.com Tour) before Rose bogeyed 18.  Stefani’s missed birdie putt on 18 set up a playoff that was rather drama-free when Stefani’s second shot landed in the water hazard.  All in all a nice weekend in Bethesda– and it’s a shame there’s not a course inside the beltway that will embrace this tournament as much as the PGA will embrace said course.  For many in the area:  Gainesville, Virginia may as well be Gainesville, Florida.  The biggest problem for Tiger’s tournament isn’t the place but the timing:  next year the Quicken Loans National takes place during Redskins Training Camp…and the following year it moves to late May.  The bigger a tournament is…the less it moves on the calendar.

 

Americans to the Exits–so much for the US hopefuls at Wimbledon.  John Isner’s loss in the mens’ third round and Madison Keys retiring from her third round match mean that for the first time since 1911– no American man or woman is in the Round of 16.  Make that gentleman or lady.  It’s a shame there are no American elites excelling on the major tournament level…because both games are exciting in completely different ways.  The mens’ game is a full-fledged Fab Four Era where Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer take turns trying to one-up each other (sorry, Stanislas Wawrinka–you’re the Pete Best of the bunch).  Federer may be the lion in winter, but grass is his surface.  Nadal may have Federer’s number, but he’s never been as good on grass as he has been on clay.  Djokovic may be the top seed, but he’s reached the finals here only twice in his storied career.  And Murray may be the only Brit in the bunch, but when he loses he becomes just a Scot.  Barring an upset, there will be compelling fireworks on July 4th.  Speaking of upsets, that’s what makes the womens’ game so interesting to follow come Grand Slam time– witness last year’s carnage at Wimbledon where most of the top seeds were gone by the end of the first week, followed by more blood-letting this year.  Where are OUR underdog women that are shocking the world?  Where’s our elite man that makes the Fab Four a Fab Five?  Sadly the absence of both drains the American rooting interest.  So much for “Breakfast at Wimbledon”;  for years its been the omelet of sports viewing…while for most Americans this year it’ll have the significance of a pop-tart.

 

Speaking of breakfast, according to Wikipedia “the Belgian waffle is identified by its larger size, lighter batter, larger squares, and a higher grid pattern that forms deep pockets.” For those eating today– beware.  As  World Cup Fever reaches a potential apex this afternoon the US National Team faces Belgium in the Knockout Stage.  While Belgium went 3-0 in Group H, let’s remind ourselves that Russia’s ranked #19, Algeria’s 22nd and South Korea currently ranks 57th.  Team USA’s Group (OF DEATH) G path that finished 1-1-1?  A 2-1 victory over #37 Ghana, a 2-2 tie with 4th ranked Portugal and a 1-0 loss to 2nd rated Germany.  So the RPI thing (to go college hoops on you) favors the Americans.  Jozy Altidore’s hamstring remains a question and a concern…and goaltender Tim Howard can only stand on his head so many times this tournament between the pipes, right?  Just like I was rooting for the US not to be subject to the casting of lots (the final tie-breaker in group play)…I’m hoping for no penalty kicks this afternoon.  I accept that penalty kicks is the way of the world…but it seems as arbitrary as free throws.  Instead, I’d rather see the two 15 minute periods followed by 15 minute “sudden victory” periods.  Recalibrate the substitutions after regulation and then if 90 more minutes are played, recalibrate them again.  The World Cup should decide the better/best team– not the better/best shooters & goaltender.

Sports fans are all about conspiracy theories:  the frozen envelope that let the Knicks draft Patrick Ewing…Richard Petty winning race #200 the week President Reagan decides to visit a NASCAR race…Fred Swearingen ruling Steelers touchdown for the Immaculate Reception six years before calling pass interference on Bennie Barnes…Steve Sanders winning the Beverly Hills Beach Club volleyball tournament.  Sometimes something just doesn’t seem exactly right.  If the United States and Germany tie their match Thursday, both nations get through the Group Stage (which would be an achievement for the US and the bare minimum for Deutchland).  Will we buy a draw thinking what we know and knowing what we think?

 

Group Gor in honor of the shoes…the Franz Beckenbauer Group:

US faces Germany– a draw as we all know full well sends both teams to the Knockout Stage with Germany winning the group.  If there’s a tie in the other match both teams move on.  If the US loses they need to maintain their goal differential advantage (+1 to Ghana’s -1 and Portugal’s -4) to advance…likewise for Germany (who’s in better shape with a +4 goals advantage).

Ghana plays Portugal-- both nations need a win plus a blowout result in the other match for a shot at advancing.  Ghana at -1 would have a better chance than Portugal (-4)…further underscoring how much Sunday’s draw was worse for them than the US.

 

Group H– Lev Yashin Group:  not a lot of great World Cup history to choose from, so we wemt with a wiley Soviet goalkeeper in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Belgium takes on South Korea– Belgium already assured of advancing, takes the group with a win or a tie…or a loss by Algeria.  South Korea makes the Knockout Stage with a victory if Russia wins and they surpass Russia’s goal differential advantage (they’re currently -2 to Russia’s -1), or Russia and Algeria tie and South Korea outscores Belgium by 4 (3 if they surpass Algeria’s advantage of +2 in total goals).

Algeria meets Russia– Algeria’s in with a win or a tie (as long as South Korea doesn’t beat Belgium by 4 or 3 while surpassing their total goals advantage)…while Russia’s in with a victory if South Korea loses, ties or doesn’t outscore Belgium by more than Russia’s margin of victory over Algeria.

 

 

Just when you thought the World Cup was going to proceed without any biting– Uruguay’s Luis Suarez has to go ahead and ruin things for everbody else.  His 79th minute chomp of Giorgio Chiellini overshadowed the goal that followed two minutes later and the resulting advancement into the Knockout Stage.  It doesn’t help that he’s bitten before…not once but twice (while playing for Dutch club Ajax and while with Liverpool in the EPL, so at least he’s spread his dining around).  Tuesday’s early games were major cannon fodder for those who dislike soccer:  the biting episode that went unpenalized a match that meant everything, and then a scoreless draw in a match that felt much longer than the 90 minutes + stoppage time.

Woe is England– one point in three matches represents that nation’s worst ever showing on the biggest stage.  For some reason the whole once again turns out to be far less than the sum of the team’s parts.  Reminiscent of the US mens’ basketball team finishing 6th at the 2002 World Championships– except that tournament was played in Indianapolis.

Latin America Looms Large– of the eight teams advancing over the first two days, four are from South America (Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay) while two are from Central America (Mexico and Costa Rica).  If it weren’t for Greece’s penalty kick in stoppage time against Ivory Coast, there’d be just one European nation getting through the group stage thus far.

So far this week the tiebreakers (goal differential, most goals and then head-to-head) have only applied regarding the Group A winner (Brazil thanks to a better differential than Mexico).  Wednesday all four berths in the Knockout Stage could come down to hair-splitting scenarios…and just remember, if they’re tied after head-to-head they cast lots.  As a 21st century competition that keeps time in a 20th century manner decides to determine worthiness based on a process perfected in 6th century B.C.  I can hear the naysayers already.

 

Group E--or in honor of France’s best ever player, the Zinedine Zidane Group:

France faces Ecuador– the only way France is eliminated is if they lose by 4+goals or allow 6+ goals in a 3 goal loss and Switzerland tops Honduras by a 5+ goals.  A tie delivers the Group.  Ecuador is in with a victory plus a Swiss loss or tie (or a Swiss win that doesn’t boost their goal differential), or a tie plus a Swiss loss or tie.  Ecuador’s likely in with a loss if Honduras wins…because of goal differential.

Switzerland meets Honduras– the Swiss are in with a victory plus an Ecuador loss or tie, or a tie plus an Ecuador loss, or a loss by less than 2 goals and if Ecuador loses by 3+ to France and doesn’t surpass them in total goals (Swiss are at 4, Ecuador are at 3).  Honduras reaches the next round with a 2+ goal victory over Switzerland plus an Ecuador loss by 3+ goals unless they surpass the other two nations in total goals.

 

Group F--or the Diego Maradona Group:

Argentina plays Nigeria– Argentina’s moving on regardless…and can win the group with a victory or tie.  Nigeria takes the group with a win…advances with a win or tie…and if they lose needs Iran to lose or tie to Bosnia-Herzegovina, or they go to goal differential/total goals tiebreaker.

Iran plays Bosnia-Herzegovina– Iran’s slim hopes hinge on a victory plus a Nigeria loss if their margin of victory is more than Nigeria’s margin of defeat…or is equal and they finish with more total goals than Nigeria (who has a 1 goal lead now).  Bosnia-Herzegovina’s out of contention.

Who’s ready for the second of four “final days”?  Monday’s action gave the host nation a sigh of relief…after Cameroon tied things up in the 26th minute.  Mexico also punched its ticket to the next round…while the Netherlands gave everyone notice that they may be a force to be reckoned with in the near future.  Chile?  You get Brazil Saturday.  Take plenty of pictures.

Four more matches today with the usual multiple connotations:

Group C known in no circles whatsoever as the “El Pipe” Valderamma Group:

Colombia plays Japan– Colombia’s already in regardless.  Japan needs a win plus a loss by Ivory Coast, or a win plus an Ivory Coast-Greece tie if they outscore Colombia by 2+ goals, unless they score 3+ more goals than Ivory Coast does today.

Greece faces Ivory Coast– Greece is in with a victory plus a loss or tie by Japan.  Ivory Coast advances with a win, or a tie if Japan loses or ties, or a tie if Japan doesn’t outscore Colombia by more than 1 goal and doesn’t score 3+ more goals than they do this afternoon.

Group D–also known as the Paolo Rossi Group:

Italy faces Uruguay– the winner advances.  If there’s a tie–Italy’s off to the Knockout Stage. Either winner remains in contention for taking the group if Costa Rica loses, depending on their margin of victory.

Costa Rica meets England– Costa Rica already assured of reaching the next round, wraps up the Group with a tie, or an Italy-Ghana tie, or a loss where their margin of goals remains better than the winner of Italy (right now +3 to 0)-Uruguay (currently +3 to -1).

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