Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hornets Eak out Last Minute Preseason Win over the Pacers

Based on the final few minutes, you never would’ve known it was only preseason. In a nip-and-tuck affair, Byron Scott subbed four of his starters and James Posey back into the game in the fourth quarter. Scott had vowed to use his first string for a larger portion vs. the Pacers and he wasn’t kidding – four starters logged 30-plus minutes.
The regulars teamed up to keep the Hornets (6-0) perfect in preseason, outplaying the Pacers in the late going to secure another victory.
With most of the 12,684 fans in attendance on their feet for the last few possessions, the atmosphere in the New Orleans Arena resembled a regular season contest. Hornets All-Stars Chris Paul (23 points, 15 assists, 36 minutes) and David West (26 points, 12-for-17 shooting) also put up statistics that looked like their lines after a game that counted in the standings.
“They look like they’re in midseason form already,” Scott described of Paul and West. “They played like All-Stars.”
New Orleans will try to cap a perfect exhibition slate on Thursday in Mobile, Ala., when it faces Miami. The Hornets are the only team in the league that has not lost a preseason game.
Other notes from Tuesday:
Scott emphasized that he wants to see his reserves mesh better as a group and be less concerned about how they fare offensively.
“I think most of them think that their playing time is predicated on how well they do offensively,” Scott said. “It’s not. It has nothing to do with their offense. You can still hustle, still defend, still communicate. Those are all things they have to do every single night. The talk (I’ll have) with that unit is to make sure they understand that I’m not looking for offense. I’m looking for you to be tenacious on the defensive end.
“I’m trying to get a second unit I can trust to go out there and do the things we want them to do.”
Although Paul and West played more Tuesday than you’d expect in a preseason game, Scott says he wants both to average fewer minutes in the regular season, even if it’s only a minute or two less per game.
“I’m trying to knock a couple minutes off both of those guys’ (averages),” Scott said. “So that they’re fresher when the season’s over and we’re getting ready for the postseason. But the bottom line is we’re still trying to win games.
“You hope that your second unit can come in and take some of that pressure off, so that they don’t have to play big minutes. I have a lot of confidence that we’ll be able to do that this year.”

Hornets postgame quotes
Hornets Head Coach Byron Scott
On the game: “It was a good chance for us to have a tight game. It was good to see the way we reacted. It was a good game for us because Indiana is a tough team.
“We have come a long way in a short period of time, and we still have a long way to go. I think I’m ready for the season, I think they are ready for the season. I am very happy with the way preseason has gone thus far. ”

Forward Rasual Butler
On his play: “I played better tonight. I tried to do some positive things for us. I’m out there to be an offensive threat.”

Guard Chris Paul
On the game: “This is a game we definitely needed. Especially now, gearing up for the regular season. Whether it’s pre-season or not, we want to experience success. We want to get better as a team. We’re always going to play to win. We played this like a regular season game. I got to play the fourth quarter. We understand we have to get better defensively, but that’s what the pre-season is for.”

Monday, October 20, 2008

Just 1 game Shy of the Series

It's never easy winning two successive World Series championships. Nobody has been able to perform the feat since the Yankees won the World Series three straight years, from 1998-2000.
When a team jumps as many hurdles as the Red Sox did in 2008, that task gets even tougher.

Truth be told, Boston didn't win 95 games in the regular season and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series the easy way. The Red Sox endured, clawed and battled their way to within one game of reaching another World Series on Sunday, then fell short with a 3-1 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field.

"To say we were going to get to Game 7 of the ALCS with all the injuries we had and what we've been though as a team, it's a pretty good accomplishment," said Dustin Pedroia, who may end up winning the AL MVP Award in the offseason. "We still felt like we had a championship-caliber team. We just ran into a team that played a little bit better than us."

General manager Theo Epstein was proud of what the Sox accomplished this season.

"This was a year where we had to survive almost from Day One right to Game 7 of the ALCS," said Epstein, who noted Boston overcame a lot of obstacles. "These players grinded through everything. Along the way, great camaraderie and sense of team and a sense of purpose developed, including a lot of magic. These guys really pulled hard for one another. That's really what we tried to preach as an organization. These guys are the organization. They make us proud with what they do out there."

There were road struggles in the season's first half, the trade of future Hall of Famer Manny Ramirez on July 31, and injuries that popped up again and again to prominent members from the team's 2007 World Series championship run.

But look no further than the team's performance in the ALCS as an indication of how tough the Red Sox were. Trailing, 7-0, in the seventh inning of Game 5 -- and behind, 3-1, in a best-of-seven series -- the Red Sox rallied for an 8-7 win, then took Game 6 in St. Petersburg to force their third ALCS Game 7 in five seasons -- all of which included Boston late-series rallies.

Yet another miracle comeback -- the same type the Sox became known for throughout the decade -- was there for the taking.

They just fell a little short.

There were obvious inconsistencies throughout -- compare the Red Sox's 21-29 road record at the All-Star break to their 36-11 home mark. Boston won 13 in a row at home from May 2-June 5 but lost 12 of 17 on the road in that same span. The Red Sox rallied to finish the season just four games under .500 on the road.

Despite not reaching the World Series, closer Jonathan Papelbon was proud of how his club performed this season.

"I said to myself, 'I'm proud of us,'" said Papelbon. "I'm proud of what we went through this year and how we overcame things. We put ourselves in a situation to get to Game 7. When you do that and you battle all the way back to a Game 7 and you try to put yourself in a position to win, which we very well did tonight, that's all you can ask for."

For every Red Sox setback, it seemed there was an answer that exceeded expectations.

It started early, with a right shoulder injury to Curt Schilling that prevented the 2001 World Series Most Valuable Player (while with the Diamondbacks), who was also a pivotal part of the Sox's title runs of '04 and '07, from throwing even one pitch in 2008.

The answer? Boston relied not only on the steady growth of Jon Lester, who went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and became the team's most consistent starter throughout the season, but the insertion of new starters into the rotation to fill voids. Justin Masterson, Bartolo Colon and Paul Byrd all found themselves winning games in the starting rotation.

That trio went 12-7 while starting in 2008.

On May 31, David Ortiz injured his left wrist and missed nearly two months. Instead of crumbling, the Red Sox's offense received a boost from J.D. Drew, who took Ortiz's No. 3 spot in the batting order and hit .337 with 12 homers in June.

"This team had a lot of heart," said Drew who won the AL Player of the Month Award in June. "We fought through it and dealt with injuries all year. To be in this position, you don't want to lose in this round of the playoffs. To get here through all we've been through is pretty impressive."

When the Red Sox's bullpen began sputtering in mid-July -- a period when the club looked to find a steady reliever who could consistently pitch the eighth inning and preserve a lead for Papelbon -- manager Terry Francona called on Masterson again.

Masterson was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket to be converted to a reliever, and it worked, as the 23-year-old went 2-2 with a 2.36 ERA in 27 relief appearances. He allowed just six earned runs in July and August combined.

By the non-waiver Trade Deadline, it was obvious that Ramirez's future was no longer with Boston. The team traded him to the Dodgers in a three-team swap that moved Jason Bay to the Red Sox as Ramirez's replacement.

Bay did his part, batting .293 with nine homers and 37 RBIs through the end of the regular season, and he was an upgrade defensively in left field.

Stints on the disabled list again set in. The Sox lost right-hander Josh Beckett for a period in August with a right elbow injury, then a right oblique injury. Drew spent a month nursing his lower back, and Triple-A prospect Jed Lowrie became the everyday shortstop when Julio Lugo was lost for the season. Mike Lowell, the 2007 World Series MVP, didn't play after Game 3 of the AL Division Series because of a right hip injury.

The Red Sox made the necessary adjustments.

Lowrie made all of the routine plays in the field and became a legitimate offensive threat in August, collecting 16 extra-base hits. Kevin Youkilis, an AL Gold Glove Award-winning first baseman, became the everyday third baseman in the playoffs during Lowell's absence.

A late-August deal for Mark Kotsay gave Boston a viable option for a backup outfielder and a first baseman. Kotsay filled in for Drew in right until Drew returned, then he took Youkilis' spot at first while Youkilis played third for Lowell.

For every setback, there was an answer.

"We had a lot come together this year," said Jason Varitek, who will be a free agent this offseason. "Our bullpen solidified itself. Our pitching took steps at becoming better. We were able to play a little different offensively and manufacture runs and added some speed in there. This team has a lot to be proud of."

It was enough to help the Red Sox earn an AL Wild Card berth in September, then knock off the Angels -- the Majors' only 100-win team -- in the ALDS. And down, 3-1, in the ALCS, the Red Sox battled to beat the Rays in Games 5 and 6, forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 with a World Series trip on the line.

Other teams facing such difficulty might not have seen October at all. Boston took it all in stride, building character and growing together as the adversity mounted.

Every time it seemed there was no chance at another trip to the World Series, the Red Sox responded.

They came close. It was just one game short.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sox Victory Forces Game Seven

Two days after pulling out that astounding and historic comeback that earned them this ticket to Tropicana Field for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox had no desire for such stress-inflicted heroics. They just needed a workmanlike win to push this riveting series with the Tampa Bay Rays to the limit, and that's precisely what they got.
In Saturday's 4-2 victory over the Rays, the big hits were spread throughout the contest instead of being saved for the tense final moments. And this time, the pitching tone was also set early, thanks to a less-than-vintage Josh Beckett relying on grit to earn the win -- Boston's first by a starter since Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game 1.

Perhaps no hit was bigger than the solo homer by Jason Varitek, who snapped out of an 0-for-14 drought in the ALCS to break a 2-2 tie with two outs in the sixth. The Red Sox led for the rest of the night.

"We fought," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "That's what our team does. We believe in each other. I think Josh's performance said it all. He's out there with everything he's got trying to keep us in that game, and he did an unbelievable job and set the tone for the game."

After falling behind, 3-1, in this ALCS, Boston has forced Game 7, just like it did in 2004 and '07. In the previous two occasions, the Red Sox were successful in moving on to the World Series. They hope the third attempt will be equally charmed.

"We have been in there before and we know what it takes to win games," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "It's not easy. It's not like we like to be in this situation, but I guess that's the way our destiny has been the past few years that we've won the World Series. It's hard, man. It's not an easy thing to do. You don't want to be [trailing 3-1]."

But there's no more hole for the Red Sox to climb out of. Now the ALCS is even.

"We get to play [Sunday]," said Pedroia. "One of us is going on and the other one is going home."

Jon Lester, Mr. Consistency all year for Boston, will take the ball Sunday night hoping to avenge a rare shaky outing in Game 3. Matt Garza, who beat Lester in that matchup, will be Tampa Bay's Game 7 starter.

With a win Saturday vs. the Rays, the Red Sox are 8-0 in Game 6s when they are trailing 3-2 in a best-of-seven or best-of-nine postseason series.
To get to Lester, the Red Sox turned to Beckett, who was clearly pitching at less than 100 percent. Beckett, who injured his right oblique at the end of the regular season, gave Boston five innings, allowing four hits and two runs, walking one and striking out three.

The biggest clue that Beckett was hurting was the sight of Javier Lopez warming up in the bullpen throughout the fourth and Hideki Okajima following suit in the fifth.

"I thought he threw with a lot of guts," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "It's not vintage Josh Beckett, but he also proved who he is, and again, that was [big]. He gave us what we needed. I don't think it was real easy for him at times, but he pitched with a lot of composure and a lot of guts."

In Beckett's final inning, he surrendered a game-tying homer to left by No. 9 hitter Jason Bartlett, who went deep just once in the regular season. Though Beckett's velocity was down to 88-90 mph for much of the inning, he was able to reach back for a 93-mph fastball to get Akinori Iwamura on a groundout to end the inning. That was all for Beckett, who threw 78 pitches.

Beckett, who carried the Marlins throughout the 2003 postseason and the Red Sox last year, downplayed his Game 6 performance.

"I felt like I executed pitches when I needed to," Beckett said.

The bullpen took it from there, setting up the much-anticipated showdown on Sunday night. In particular, Okajima was big, firing two hitless innings. Justin Masterson, the unflappable rookie, pitched a perfect eighth. Jonathan Papelbon, who has a 0.00 ERA in 25 career postseason innings, fired a 1-2-3 ninth for his second save of the series.

The Red Sox are 9-1 in elimination games under manager Terry Francona.
"I think tonight was a battle," said Papelbon. "It was just another classic game where we had to grind out a win. That's pretty much what we've put ourselves into, is having to sit here and grind out wins. That's what we're doing. That's all we're trying to do."

Varitek is the epitome of a grinder. He got a 2-0 pitch from Shields that he liked -- an 89-mph fastball -- and deposited it over the fence in right-center.

"I say this all the time, but I can fortunately go 0-for-2,000 and put down the right fingers and get pitchers to do stuff and come away gratified," Varitek said. "You may not have that opportunity in other positions, and I enjoy that."

It was Varitek's first homer since Sept. 15, which also took place at Tropicana Field.

"It's awesome," said Beckett. "You know, he wears a 'C' on that jersey for a lot of different reasons, but none more important than how much respect everybody in that clubhouse -- including players, coaches [and] upper management -- has for him. We're always pulling for the guy. It was huge for him to do that."

The homer by the captain seemed to spark the Red Sox. The offense kept rallying in that sixth, aided a little by the Rays. Coco Crisp (3-for-4) belted a single off second baseman Iwamura and into short right. Pedroia hit a grounder to short that Bartlett made a poor throw to first on. The error set up runners at the corners for Ortiz, and the big designated hitter lofted an RBI single into right-center to make it a 4-2 game.

For the fifth straight game, the Rays struck with some quick offense. It was delivered off the bat of B.J. Upton, who crushed a Beckett fastball off the C-ring catwalk for a solo homer with one out in the bottom of the first.

The Red Sox didn't take long to respond. Kevin Youkilis opened the second by hammering a 89-mph fastball by Shields for a solo shot to left to tie the game.

Pedroia got a rally started in the third by drawing a one-out walk. Ortiz followed by ripping a double down the line in right. Youkilis, Boston's best RBI man all year, did his job, giving the Red Sox a 2-1 lead with a fielder's-choice grounder to short.

The game still had some momentum swings left, but in the end, the Red Sox were again left standing to improve to 9-1 in potential elimination games under Francona.

"You're battling every single pitch, and mentally, it's obviously draining," Pedroia said. "Once you hit the pillow at night, you go straight to sleep. But it's fun just being here. It's exciting to play. A couple of nights ago, down 7-0, we really didn't think this would come. We're here."

And with one more win, the Red Sox will be in the World Series with a chance to defend their title.

Defense Sparks LSU Win Over Gamecocks

LSU came into the season with one of the top-rated defenses in the country, and lost its swagger and reputation in a lopsided loss at Florida. One week later, the Tigers allowed 42 yards in a second-half shutout to shutdown South Carolina and get back to its winning ways, 24-17.

LSU (5-1, 3-1 SEC) rebounded from the worst loss of the Les Miles era (51-21 at Florida). The Tigers will play host to Georgia on Oct. 25 at either 2:30 p.m. CDT or 6:45 p.m. CDT. Kickoff will be announced on Sunday.

South Carolina (5-3, 2-3 SEC), which had its four-game winning streak snapped, lost by seven points for the fifth time in 2008. The Gamecocks are on bye next weekend.

The Tigers defense recorded six sacks for minus-49 yards, helping LSU allow only 39 yards rushing on 31 carries. USC was 1-of-9 on third down.

Offensively, once the defense changed the field position with a forced fumble on the opening drive of the second half, the Tigers began to gain momentum and roll up yards against the highly ranked Gamecocks defense.

Starting LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee finished 16-of-26 for 189 yards passing with an interception that led a South Carolina touchdown just before the half.

Lee was spelled in certain situtions by backup Andrew Hatch, who was 2-for-3 passing for 10 yards including the game-tying 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Richard Dickson with 44 seconds to play in the third quarter.

Hatch also ran for 19 yards on five attempts.

LSU's two-headed running attack of Keiland Williams and Charles Scott provided a powerful punch. Williams had 72 yards on 15 carries, while Scott pounded in touchdown runs of 5 and 2 yards. The second was the game-winner with 4:16 to play in the second half.

Wide receiver Demetrius Byrd led the Tigers with 65 yards on three catches. Brandon LaFell had four receptions for 55 yards, while Dickson had two catches for 24 yards and the TD.

The LSU offense held the ball for 34:32 compared to South Carolina's 25:28.

South Carolina redshirt freshman quarterback Stephen Garcia was 14-of-26 passing for 215 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Kenny McKinley had a game-high 77 yards on four catches, while Jared Cook added 74 yards on five grabs. Weslye Saunders had a 26-yard touchdown catch that tied the game at 10-10.

Four double-figure gains by the Tigers led to their first score that ended the second drive of the game. A 10-yard scamper by Holliday moved the Tigers into Gamecocks territory with 9:16 to play in the first quarter.

After a 10-yard catch by Brandon LaFell, LSU forced a timeout with its no-huddle offense. However, a 7-yard loss on a bunch formation lateral from Hatch to Holliday stalled the drive. David hit a 48-yard field goal to give the Tigers an early 3-0 lead.

A knock-out hit by LSU safety Harry Coleman on USC tailback Eric Baker jarred the ball loose in LSU territory. Unable to cleanly grab the loose ball, Coleman regained his footing, picked up the ball and returned 17 yards to the Gamecocks 42.

On the ensuing drive, LaFell dropped a perfect third-and-10 pass from Lee at the USC 25 that would have put the Tigers inside the redzone. LSU's punt went into the endzone for a touchback.

Late in the first quarter, preseason All-SEC tight end Jared Cook got involved in the offense for South Carolina, coming across the formation to make a 31-yard catch-and-run to the LSU 47. Garcia then overcame a sack by Jackson by scrambling 17 yards to the 23. A pass interference call against LSU cornerback Chris Hawkins gave USC first-and-goal at the 8, but LSU defensive end Kirston Pittman's sack of Garcia was too much for the Gamecocks to overcome.

Ryan Succup's 21-yard field goal tied the game at 3-3 with 12:56 left in the first half.

A quick three-and-out by the Tigers led to a short punt and excellent field position for USC. This drive ended with a missed field goal by Succup from 39 yards, giving LSU another opportunity to get its offense on the field and throw a different look at the Gamecocks defense.

The Tigers alternated quarterbacks Hatch then Lee to drive into Gamecocks territory on a 19-yard catch by LaFell from Lee. On first-and-10 from the USC 20-yardline, Lee tossed a middle screen to Keiland Williams who used downfield blocks by left tackle Ciron Black and left guard Herman Johnson to advance to the 5. Two plays later, Scott scored from 5 yards out to give LSU a 10-3 lead.

South Carolina was able to answer the score on its next drive, as Garcia used another broken-down pocket to gain 41 yards on a completion to McKinley at the LSU 26. Two plays later, Garcia again came under pressure in the pocket. This time, he stayed in and found tight end Weslye Saunders wide open in the left flat for a 26-yard touchdown with 2:38 to play in the half.

The game was tied at 10-10.

LSU hoped to run its two-minute drill and add a score before the half. But, as he did at Auburn, Lee tossed an interception over the head of intended receiver Terrance Toliver and into the waiting hands of cornerback Carlos Thomas. Thomas had his sights on the endzone but stepped out of bounds at the 8.

On fourth-and-goal at the 1, Davis was able to get the nose of the football over the goalline to give South Carolina a 17-10 halftime advantage.

On the opening drive of the second half, LSU linebacker Darry Beckwith hit Garcia and forced a fumble that was picked up by fellow linebacker Perry Riley at the LSU 47-yardline.

Though LSU's next drive ended in a punt, the play changed field position and ultimately led to the Tigers' next score after four-straight punts.

Starting at his 47-yard line, Lee connected with tight end Richard Dickson for the first time for a 17-yard gain to the USC 33-yard line.

Faced with third-and-11, Lee then found Toliver over the middle for a 13-yard reception to the 21. After a 9-yard pass to Williams, Scott gained the first down at the 7-yard line with a 5-yard run. Hatch entered in place of Lee and started the play to the right, before changing direction to find a wide-open Dickson in the left side of the endzone. The point after tied the game at 17-17 with 0:44 left in the third quarter.

The LSU defense continued to give the Gamecocks fits in the second half, recording their fifth and sixth sacks of the night by Rahim Alem and Curtis Taylor, respectively.

LSU returns to action on Saturday, Oct. 25, when the Tigers play host to Georgia. Kickoff time will be announced on Sunday by the SEC (either 2:30 p.m. on CBS or 6:45 p.m. on ESPN).

Rebs Fall Short at Bama

After seeing Alabama reel off 24 straight points in the first half, Ole Miss responded with 17 unanswered points in the second half, but the Rebel drive in the final minutes stalled in UA territory as the second-ranked Crimson Tide escaped 24-20.

John Parker Wilson threw for a season-high 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and the Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) stopped the Rebels (3-4, 1-3) on fourth-and-5 from its 43-yard line in the final minute, when Jevan Snead's pass to Dexter McCluster fell incomplete.

Ole Miss closed to within 24-20 on Joshua Shene's 35-yard field goal with 6:09 left. The Tide pushed the ball across midfield on its next possession aiming to put the game away but the drive stalled. P.J. Fitzgerald's short punt gave Ole Miss the ball at its own 24 with 3:03 left.

Snead ran it on the first three plays, including one 5-yard gain on a pass that was batted right back into his arms by Bobby Greenwood. Brandon Deaderick then had a sack, Snead threw an incompletion and hit McCluster for a 10-yard gain to set up fourth down.

The Tide has won its past two games by a total of seven points since rising to No. 2 with a series of easy victories. It was also another in a series of close calls with Ole Miss. The Alabama had won each of the past three meetings by a field goal, but holds a commanding 23-1 advantage in Tuscaloosa.

The Rebels were going for their second road upset of a top-five team after beating Florida three weeks earlier.

Houston Nutt's team cashed in on two big gambles on the opening drive of the second half to make it 24-10. Snead ran up the middle for 17 yards on fourth-and-4. Then, Ole Miss faked a field goal, with blocking back Jason Cook taking a shovel pass from holder Rob Park for a 9-yard touchdown.

A later fourth-down try in Alabama territory didn't pay off, when Don'ta Hightower stuffed Davis on fourth-and-inches late in the third. Ole Miss got more chances, though.

After the teams exchanged fumbles in the fourth quarter, Snead hit Shay Hodge for a 17-yard touchdown with 9:27 left. Snead had fumbled at the end of a long run on the previous drive.

Alabama went three-and-out to give Ole Miss the ball back near midfield. Snead kept the drive alive with a 31-yard pass to Lionel Breaux on third-and-11. His next two passes fell incomplete, forcing the Rebels to settle for Shene's kick.

Wilson was 16-of-25 passing and was intercepted once. Mark Ingram ran for 73 yards and Glen Coffee was held to 52 yards on 13 carries and lost a fumble.

Enrique Davis gained 70 yards on 11 carries for Ole Miss, most of that coming on a 62-yarder that set up Shene's first field goal. It was the longest play from scrimmage yielded by Alabama this season.

The Tide had outscored opponents 88-0 in the first quarter before that.

Snead was 16-for-31 for 192 yards.

Alabama got rolling quickly after the early deficit with 24 consecutive points before halftime.

Wilson hit Marquis Maze on a perfectly thrown fade route for a 26-yard touchdown to start it. The Tide then ran the ball on the final six plays of its next scoring drive, capped by Ingram's 2-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter. Terrence Cody, a 365-pound noseguard, played his first snap on offense as a lead blocker on the play.

The key cog in Alabama's run defense, Cody was carted off the field with an apparent right leg injury in the third quarter, and his status wasn't immediately known.

Justin Woodall and Rashad Johnson each picked off two passes in a 3-minute span and returned them well into Ole Miss territory - one thrown by Snead and another by McCluster on the ``Wild Rebel'' play where he lines up at quarterback. The Tide scored on Leigh Tiffin's 41-yard field goal and Wilson's 30-yard pass to Mike McCoy, splitting two defenders after a handoff and pitch-back from Glen Coffee.