Vikings Implode

As bad as Josh Freeman was in the Monday night debacle in New York, the bigger problem, in my view, was the Minnesota offensive line. Not only did Adrian Peterson not see a hole all night, Freeman almost never ended a play in the standing position. When you watch Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, you see them surgically carving the secondary without ever getting hit. When a defensive player “gets to” Manning or Brady, it is considered an accomplishment. Last night, Freeman, a big, mobile quarterback, was on the ground, with a Giant atop him, practically every time he threw. It’s no wonder his passes were off the mark. Of course, the unimaginative pass routes of the Vikings receivers didn’t help. This has been my complaint for years; how can this happen in the ultrasophisticated NFL? My pass routes in the RFL were more likely to get someone open. On one play, Freeman sprinted out to the right where he had two receivers. One ran a simple 10-yard square-out; the other did the same at 18. Both, not surprisingly, were covered and Freeman threw the ball away. I haven’t seen a Viking receiver run a post pattern or a zig-and-zag in years. Or the effective route Victor Cruz ran last night: fly 20 yards, then turn and come back toward the passer for an easy 12-yard-gain.

The Vikings have no imagination and, Jared Allen excepted, no fire. Among their defensive backs they have little skill, and certainly none of the aggressiveness required to outfight the receiver for the ball. Leslie Frazier is, it is now obvious, not the coach to fire up this squad. Nor, I am afraid, is Josh Freeman, who seemed to be in his own world most of the game. His “attitude” seemed to prevent him from relating to anyone around him, not a good sign for the future. And as for that, I don’t think Freeman’s future is in Minneapolis. Even, in their desperation, should the Vikings try to keep him, I can’t imagine that he would choose to play behind Minnesota’s offensive line any longer than necessary.

Liking the Cards

I have rarely been a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. First, they win too much, like a Midwestern version of the Yankees. Second, they come across as organizationally boring, more corporate than colorful. Third, they compete with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to whom I will always feel an allegiance. Fourth, Tony LaRussa, the Tiger Woods of baseball. But after dabbling in the NLDS and NLCS – I’m still more of an American League fan – I find myself warming up to these Redbirds.

The first turning point came, I suppose, when they jettisoned Albert Pujols, letting someone else (the Angels) pay him the obscene salary he demanded (and, we now know, did not deserve). LaRussa, too, is gone, replaced by the perfectly nondescript Mike Matheny, one more catcher-turned-manager. Nor did I particularly begrudge their dispensing of the Pirates’ postseason, partly because the Pirates had already achieved so much success this year and, more to the point, because the Cards had beat out the Bucs for first place in their division, and the regular season should count for something.

Facing the L.A. Dodgers in the NLCS also put them in a good light. My feelings toward the Yankees have somewhat transferred themselves to the Dodgers now that I reside on the West Coast: the highest payroll, the glitziest owners, the excessive media attention, the rent-a-player roster are all black marks in my book. But the defining moment came in one at-bat: Matt Carpenter against Clayton Kershaw in the scoreless sixth game. Kershaw, the league’s best pitcher, threw Carpenter ten quality pitches – huge hooks, buzzing fastballs, biting sliders – and couldn’t get him out. Each pitch that Carpenter managed to foul off amazed me. Before the playoffs all I knew of Carpenter was a name that appeared among the NL batting leaders. I didn’t know his first name, his position or where he’d come from. Before this at-bat, he had not had a particularly distinguished postseason, and I was surprised to hear he had led the league with 199 hits during the regular season. On the eleventh pitch, Kershaw hung a slider (when a batter gets a hit, the announcers invariably identify the pitch as having “hung”) and Carpenter roped it into the rightfield corner for a double that started Kershaw’s and the Dodgers’ downfall, to the eventual tune of a 9-0 series clincher. It was a classic case of a very good hitter against a very good pitcher; those duels usually go to the pitcher, so when Carpenter won this one, I said he deserves it and the Cardinals deserve it. Yes, Yasiel Puig made two awful throws from rightfield and there may have been other flubs, but this was not a case of the Dodgers giving the game away – the Cardinals took it.

I am still learning about the rest of the team. There appear to be no prima donnas, no one set up for me to root against. On the contrary, it is thrilling to see Michael Wacha rising from obscurity to Bob Gibson territory, right before our eyes. And the one player I do know about, Yadier Molina, is the definition of solid excellence. I am used to seeing Minnesota writers canonize Joe Mauer, but I would prefer the durable Molina on my team; and if any part of a pitching staff’s success is attributable to the catcher, then it is no contest.

I am equally glad that the Red Sox have put the Tigers out of their misery and will be the Cardinal’s opponent in the World Series. When they were cruising, the Tigers were imposing, and their starters were second-to-none. But after Cabrera got hurt, they barely played .500 ball, and it was painful to watch Cabrera and Fielder slump through the playoffs. Jhonny Peralta back from steroids was a black mark, and the bullpen, with no closer, was the Achilles’ heel that ultimately doomed them. Still, if it hadn’t been for Big Papi’s big blast, one of the most dramatic home runs I’ve seen, the Tigers might have squeaked through. As it is, we get to watch the feisty BoSox, who swing and run and field with abandon and have those charmingly god-awful beards. Where will my sympathies lie? I don’t yet know, but it will be fun to find out.

Twins Spin (Wheels)

As we watch Postseason 2013 we are reminded not only of how bad the Twins were this year, but how little there is to look forward to. When the season started, I could identify only two players – Joe Mauer and Glenn Perkins – who would be welcome on any team, and the same was true in September. Justin Morneau, of whom many have fond memories, is still a ghost of his pre-concussion self, and his stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates did nothing to change one’s perception. Local commentators point to Brian Dozier’s “emergence” as a solid second baseman; and while it is true he improved over last year, when he was sent to the minors, he remains a .250 hitter who can be considered “average,” at best. The rest of the squad would not look out of place in Rochester, where many of them in fact spent time this summer.

The greatest discouragement, however, is on the mound. Last year’s acquisitions of Worley, Pelfrey and Correa didn’t even rise to the level of stopgap solution, and there’s no reason to think they will answer next year. All of the “promising” pitchers of the year before, except perhaps the frequently injured Samuel Deduno, are a year older and less promising: Diamond, DeVries, Hendriks, Hernandez, et al. The biggest hope in the minors, Kyle Gibson, showed nothing, which casts some doubt on the other prospects who are rumored to arrive. Just as bad as the Twins’ situation, however, is what we see going on around them, highlighted in these Playoffs. Not only are other teams not standing still, waiting for the Twins to catch up, they are showing off young arms that will raise the bar in the future. Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole, Dan Straily – these are rookies who aren’t just promising, they are future aces (indeed, Oakland has an entire bullpen of rookies who can already pitch at the major-league level). It’s like the common blind spot experienced after each NFL draft: look how much better our team will be with these new draft choices, the fan thinks, not recognizing that every one of the competition is doing the same.

Maybe the Twins will get better when Buxton and Sano arrive – they must! – but they will have to get better faster than other teams do for it to make a difference, and, as the Playoffs also show, the name of the game is still pitching.