Archive for October, 2013

By W.G. Ramirez

Set to meet for the fourth time in the Fall Classic, the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox open the World Series with Game 1 at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox are trying to win their third crown in 10 years. St. Louis, meanwhile, is aiming to take its second title in three years and third in eight seasons. And as starters Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester will toe the slab Wednesday night, I had a chance to sit down with a Josh Johnson, starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, for his insight on this year’s Classic.

“Two really good teams, should be a really good battle, hope it goes seven games,” said Johnson, in between workout regimens at a local gym. “That’s the only thing I look for whenever I’m not rooting for one team.”

Johnson, who has pitched in both the National and American Leagues, said everyone he could think of told him the Los Angeles Dodgers were destined for the World Series, but he tried to warn them.

“I said don’t sleep on the Cardinals, they’ve been there, they’ve done it, they find ways to plug guys in … and win ball games,” he said. “They know how to do it. Don’t put anything past them.”

St. Louis opened a 3-1 lead over Los Angeles before dropping Game 5. But the Cardinals closed it out by thumping Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in the Game 6 clincher.

Time and time again, they proven there’s nobody’s been better than the Cardinals when the season is on the line. After winning the final two games of their best-of-five division series against Pittsburgh, the Cardinals are 8-1 when facing postseason elimination the past three years.

Now they’ve got the Red Sox, who know a thing or two about resiliency, as they became the second AL team in the three-division era to go from worst to first. After tying the Cardinals for the best record in baseball during the regular season, Boston defeated the wild-card Rays 3-1 in the division series, winning both home games. Boston beat Detroit 4-2 in the ALCS to capture its 13th pennant, going 2-1 at Fenway Park despite nearly getting no-hit in the opener.

Johnson said what impresses him most about the Crimson Hose is their patience at the plate, from top to bottom.

“That whole lineup, they have a lot of guys who are patient, and I’ve always struggled with that,” said Johnson, whose four-pitch arsenal finds him throwing a lot of strikes, and eventually turning to his slider for an out pitch. “They’re both pretty patient, but I think the Red Sox have so many guys who are patient, but also have power.”

And as tough as St. Louis’ pitchers are, he said, they could face the same frustration he does against hitters who don’t mind waiting for their pitch, or will simply lay off and take walks. Johnson noted fellow-Las Vegas Shane Victorino as one of the Red Sox’s most dangerous hitters to face because of the fact he can hit from both sides of the plate, he can the ball anywhere in the zone and he knows how to hit off-speed pitches very well.

“Shane’s always been a good hitter, especially off-speed up in the zone,” Johnson said. “He’s just a tough out, probably one of the toughest out for the Red Sox.”

That became evident in the final game of the ALCS, when Victorino drilled a grand slam over the Green Monster to put the Red Sox ahead for good. And while few in this year’s matchup have faced the opposing pitchers, both Victorino and Jonny Gomes – two former NL players – each have homered off Wainwright.

On the other side, Johnson said Boston pitchers need to be wary of Allen Craig, who hit a major league-leading .454 with runners in scoring position but hasn’t played since Sept. 4 because of sprained left foot, is set to return. Craig is set to be the Cardinals’ designated hitter in Games 1 and 2.

“The guy raked all year, and then got hurt; but he’s one of those guys who can just step in, and I would suspect he’s going go to come off the bench or be starting and still be hitting it.” Johnson said.

Johnson also noted the Red Sox should fear Matt Holliday Carlos Beltran, who has finally reached the first World Series of his 16-year career after three painful losses in Game 7 of the NLCS.

As for the pitchers, Johnson said there’s no one hotter on the planet than Michael Wacha, the NLCS MVP who has been almost unhittable lately. The 22-year-old rookie lost a no-hit bid against Washington on an infield single with two outs in the ninth inning of his final regular-season outing, then pitched 7-1/3 hitless innings at Pittsburgh before Pedro Alvarez homered in Game 4 of the NLDS. With the Cardinals facing elimination, Wacha won 2-1 to send the series back to St. Louis. In the NLCS, he outpitched Kershaw twice and threw 13-2/3 scoreless innings.

“Wacha has been unbelievable, he’s been their guy … and he’s been throwing the ball well,” Johnson said. “It’s contagious, once you get in that groove, you don’t ever want to get out of it. Days go by fast, your start comes up a little quicker, and that’s what you want.”

Wacha is 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in 3 postseason starts.

So all that being said, and even though he’s looking for a good series, who does the eight-year veteran think is going to walk off with the trophy?

“I’ve seen the Cardinals so many times, they just find a way to do it,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what it is; they find a way to get it done.”

By W.G. Ramirez

I’m pretty sure the NFL’s schedule makers didn’t think the combined record of the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants would be 1-10, when they put these two in the Monday Night game for Week 7. But, such is the case, as the Vikings come in with a 1-4 mark and the Giants are winless at 0-6.Line1_PROOF

And though the Giants are laying the points in this game, it’s been Minnesota that has been more competitive in its losses over the first six weeks. Other than a 25-point home loss to Carolina last week, the Vikings’ first three losses were by 10, 1 and 4 points. New York, on the other hand, has been humiliated up and down the schedule. Its defense has been non-existent and quarterback Eli Manning has thrown an NFL-high 15 interceptions, matching his number from last season.

To the Vikings’ defense, they lost Christian Ponder to an injury, and Matt Cassel simply proved to be ineffective. This week they’ll introduce Josh Freeman in purple and gold, as the former Buccaneer makes his debut with Minnesota. And lest we forget, Freeman just threw for 27 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards last year. True, he completed only 45.7 percent of his passes with the Bucs this season, but he was also embroiled in a nasty personality conflict with coach Greg Schiano, who hasn’t made that many friends while he’s been at the helm in Tampa Bay.

As for the Giants, there may not be any excuse.

One of three winless teams left in the league, the Giants come into this one after an 11-day layoff between games. They lost 27-21 defeat at Chicago on Oct. 10, and while it may have marked the lowest point total allowed by the Giants this season, they’re still allowing a staggering league-worst 34.8 points per game. The Giants have committed a league-worst 23 turnovers, and can’t seem to get a grip on either side of the ball.

Then again, the Vikings are third-worst in the NFL in yielding 31.6 points per game.

Let’s take a look at the key matchup…

KEY SHOWDOWN: Adrian Peterson vs. New York defense

Peterson, who is fourth in the league in rushing (483), arrives in Jersey after being limited to a season-low 62 yards last week following the death of his 2-year-old son two days earlier. His focus should be clearer this week, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him explode for one of those 200-yard nights.

Peterson leads the NFL with 9,332 yards rushing since joining the league in 2007. In his past 15 games, he has rushed for 2,081 yards and 15 touchdowns.

New York’s defense has been horrendous, and that’s not good when its pass rush and front line used to be one of the fiercest in the league. To put things in perspective: defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka leads the team with 1-1/2 sacks. That’s over six games

If the Giants can’t control the line of scrimmage and slow Peterson down, it’s going to open things up for the Vikings’ passing game, and Freeman might end up with a brilliant debut.

BY THE NUMBERS: Minnesota at N.Y. Giants (-3.5, 48)

The Vikings are 1-4 SU and 2-3 ATS this season, while all five games have gone over.

The well-disciplined Vikings have been called for 22 penalties, tied for second fewest in league, one behind Miami.

Minnesota comes into this one having covered 4 of 5 after an ATS loss.

The Giants are 0-6 SU and 1-5 ATS this year, while four of their six games have gone over.

In six games, New York has led for roughly 30 of 360 minutes.

The Giants haven’t scored more than 23 points since opening week, in a 36-31 loss at Dallas. They’ve lost by 5, 18, 38, 24, 15 and 6 – an average of 17.6 points per loss.

The Giants defense has given up a league-high 209 points.

New York checks into primetime on ATS losing streaks of 3-8 against losing teams, 1-5 after losing on the field, 0-4 after an ATS cover and 1-5 overall.

INJURY REPORT: Minnesota: DNP (did not practice): CB A.J. Jefferson (ankle), T Matt Kalil (back), RB Adrian Peterson (hamstring). LIMITED: DE Jared Allen (ankle), CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle), K Blair Walsh (left hamstring), DT Kevin Williams (knee). FULL: TE Rhett Ellison (knee), QB Christian Ponder (rib), C John Sullivan (hand), WR Jarius Wright (ankle). New York: DNP: DE Jason Pierre-Paul (illness), CB Corey Webster (groin), RB David Wilson (neck). LIMITED: C David Baas (neck), CB Jayron Hosley (hamstring), RB Brandon Jacobs (hamstring), TE Adrien Robinson (foot), S Cooper Taylor (shoulder), CB Terrell Thomas (knee).

ON DECK: The Giants hit the road next week, while the Vikings are back on primetime next Sunday at home.

New York travels south on Interstate 95 to Philadelphia for an NFC East showdown with the Eagles on Sunday, while the Minnesota welcomes the Green Bay Packers to town for the Sunday night game.

By W.G. Ramirez

I had a chance to cover the Sunset Regional Division I Girls Golf Championship at Siena Golf Club this past week, for the Las Vegas Review Journal. And while I watched some pretty phenomenal athletes brave a rough course and chilly conditions, I was more impressed by something that had nothing to do with their golf games, yet everything to do with how the game should be played.

Weiderman_Bryant2

Allison Weiderman (left) and Aspen Bryant after the Sunset Region Championship.

There were no Yasiel Puig-like bat flips with golf clubs off a booming tee shot. I didn’t see any LeBron James-like staredowns after a long putt. And I certainly didn’t see any Joseph Fauria-like touchdown dances every time someone new took the lead, or challenged to take over as leader.

What emerged from the final four competitors over the last nine holes was a display of sportsmanship plenty of pro athletes can take a page from.

Cimarron-Memorial’s Aspen Bryant, Desert Oasis’ Allison Weiderman, Bishop Gorman’s Katie DeJesus and Palo Verde’s Allison Ryu were all within striking distance of one another at the turn. Bryant was competing as an individual, while the other competitors were part of their teams vying to earn a berth into next week’s state tournament on Wednesday and Thursday.

The top two teams in the region moved on, while the top five individuals from non-qualifying state teams earned a one-way ticket to Bear’s Best Golf Course.

But as much as each girl wanted to win, they seemingly put their personal wills and wants aside to extend support and praise to their competitors.

“I don’t dislike anybody because they’re playing the same game as me,” Bryant said. “They’re my competition, but it’s not like we’re in contact sports or something. We can still kind of be friendly.”

If anyone had a right to be salty on the back nine, as the sun was descending and the temperatures were dropping, it was the Cimarron senior, who dropped an 11 on the par-4, 10-hole to fall behind Weiderman by three strokes. After all, Bryant was the No. 1 seed based on season averages, and was a mere 3-over par after the front nine.

Instead, any bystander would have thought Bryant was there specifically to cheer her competitors on. The same can be said for Weiderman, the No. 2 seed. Both could be heard throughout the last several holes cheering for one another, not to mention DeJesus and Ryu. Whether it was off the tee box or after a beautifully played long putt by DeJesus on a couple of occasions, the girls’ graciousness was refreshing in a world where athleticism tends to rear its ugly head among competitors.

Don’t get them wrong, as Weiderman pointed out – they each want to win medalist honors.

“Golf is such an individual sport and you want everyone to be making their putts, you want the competition level to be higher, so that you think ‘if they put this in’ you want to put yours in right after them,” Weiderman said. “I just think cheering everyone else on just brings a better environment and everyone wants to do good if they have competitors saying ‘nice putt’ or ‘nice shot.’ ”

And as Desert Oasis coach Ken Gibson pointed out: “They want to win because they play well, not because somebody else plays bad.”

The positive vibes spilt into the “gallery,” which consisted of a couple of parents and coaches from each school, not to mention this amazed reporter who got to see an exciting finish to a regional golf championship. The coaches could be heard yelling “nice putt,” or “good shot,” or “atta girl” throughout the round to all the competitors. Parents knew one another and the golfers, because the girls had been competing against one another during divisional matches all season.

As Bryant’s 11 left her scrambling and challenging DeJesus just to stay near second at times, while both trailed Weiderman, staying positive with the others might have been the trick in keeping a certain poise that allowed her to shoot three pars and one birdie over the final five holes.

“I think when I don’t have any emotions toward it, I do better than if I’m happy when I start (well), or if I’m angry when I do bad,” Bryant said. “If I just don’t do anything, I usually play a lot better because I don’t think about anything but my next shot.”

And yet the one thing she continued to do, even if she stayed quiet while being shuttled from shot to shot, was cheer on her rivals.

Weiderman also stayed focused on her game, since she needed to finish strong for her team in order to get to next week. And she shot beautifully over the first five holes of the back nine, dropping three pars and a birdie.

“Showing no emotion sometimes does you better, so I felt bad and I didn’t really want to say anything,” Weiderman said. “But then I’m thinking ‘here’s my chance’. But I still don’t want her to get an 11.”

Nor did Bryant want her chief competitor to shoot 5-over over two crucial holes, including a 4-over 8 on the par-4 16.

“I truly feel bad when other people do bad, because it could just as easily be me,” Bryant said. “But I do think sometimes that just opens the door more for me. But I never wish bad things happen. I never want somebody’s ball to go into the water. (Because) the next hole it could be me in the water or something.”

When it was all said and done, the girls congratulated one another for a strong finish, and getting the round in before it became completely dark. I mean, they teed off at 12:48 p.m. and the final putt was dropped at 6:19 p.m. Nonetheless, they sat together to sign their scorecards and they converged to the final tote board for the announcements of who was going to state.

And the winners were…

Well, after all that sportsmanship several pro athletes could learn from, does it really matter?

Shadow1 208By W.G. Ramirez

It’s never easy for an underclassman to fit into a varsity-level program that has rich tradition and high expectations annually.

So imagine the feeling Arbor View’s Jessica Longhurst had last year as a sophomore in the state championship game, when Aggies coach Jay Howard asked her to step up as one of the team’s penalty-kick kickers.

You’d never imagine she was nervous when her shot was the one that sealed the victory over Green Valley, and handed the Aggies their second state championship in three years.

“She’s a quiet girl, and whatever you say she just says yes,” Howard said. “We had four of our five kickers set … and she stepped up for us in that situation.”

And while she was a vital part of the Aggies’ state title run, Longhurst’s demeanor blended her into the background of a senior-laden group of players whose names were well-known throughout Southern Nevada.

This year, however, there’s no hiding her talent. Everyone knows about Jessica Longhurst.

“To say the good coaches know, and look, who to watch out for, she’s definitely a target; she’s on their radar,” Arbor View assistant coach Melanie Johnston said.

Johnston, who is the head JV coach as well, said Arbor View has gone through many different styles of team-personalities, from having several vocal leaders last season to having one player take command as the team leader in prior years. And because Longhurst has been exposed to the program since her freshman year, she’s been able to absorb everything Howard and Johnston have tried to instill, and what the teams have been like with some of the top players in the Sunset Region.

“She came in as a leader that freshman year, and wasn’t on varsity; but that (JV) team was mature, collected – they were just phenomenal,” Johnston said. “They put out a varsity-level performance right off. She got to be a leader before moving up to varsity, and then having to fit in the mix with the older girls and kind of find her position.

“Jessica has been one of the players that her work ethic sets her apart from a lot of players. She’s just never taken time off or trying to cut corners. She’s always expecting the best of herself, she’s very coachable, she’s willing to try things and get outside of her comfort zone.”

Getting out of her comfort zone is an understatement this year, as she’s moved from defender to midfield.Shadow1 677

“It took hard work and a lot of confidence,” Longhurst said. “I really liked playing sweeper; I already had a lot of confidence there. (Changing position) has been really hard, just because I’ve always been a defender; I’ve never been an offensive player. I’ve never had to dribble or take the ball up. I’m still transitioning.”

Howard said the move was out of need this season, once the team graduated Amberly Halstead, who is now a freshman and playing at Northwest College in Wyoming. Halstead left a huge gap on the line, but Howard said Longhurst’s transition has come natural for her because of her overall ability to take command on the field, not to mention her work ethic.

Halstead agreed wholeheartedly.

“That’s what good players do, they handle the situations they get put into,” she said. “They can work with change. She’s young, but she’s smart enough to handle that stuff.”

The former all-Southern Nevada star for the Aggies said there were times last year that Longhurst’s work ethic inspired many of the upperclassmen, including her.

“She motivated me because I never wanted to get outworked, and Jessica never stops working hard,” Halstead said. “On days where it seems everyone else is having an off day, Jessica’s a hard worker and she’s a team player, so she keeps everyone focused on working hard.”

Said Longhurst: “When you work hard, I think the older girls give you respect.”

Now, with the shoe on the other foot, it’s Longhurst who proudly walks the halls at Arbor View with a letterman’s jacket and a state ring and is the upperclassman the younger girls want respect from.

“She’s one of those kids that her character, people want to play for her, they want to play with her,” Johnston said. “I think people depend on her. She hasn’t spent a lot of time in the papers as a defender. You don’t always get to recognize your defenders because stats don’t show. Her being a little bit more central and more heavily involved in the attack is probably gonna help her turn with that, and being seen a little more offensively than being seen as just a defensive player.”

Longhurst can’t receive any offers until next summer, but she’s generated plenty of interest from college coaches, thanks to her club soccer career. And both Howard and Johnston believe she is well on her way to joining an impressive list of Division I players who have graduated from Arbor View.

“What Jessica brings on the field is she never stops, she plays so hard that that makes her stand out,” Howard said. “Even when Jess is tired, she’s running and trying. And she’s versatile too … I would want her cause I could put her in a lot of different spots and be successful.”

Longhurst says she’s taking it step-by-step, game-by-game this season, while hoping to attain one goal at a time leading up to the postseason. She knows college offers will come, and she acknowledges her team has the potential to vie for a state title. But she also admits the second she allows herself – or her teammates – to think about back-to-back championships, is when focusing on the task at hand will be lost.

“Every game is a state game, you have to work hard to get there,” she said. “You never know what the results could be, so I try not to think about it … you just can’t think like that.”

Good philosophy for a girl who less than a year ago was unassuming and far from the headlines.

But when the defending state champions step on the field in the postseason this year, there’s no doubt everyone will know about Arbor View’s Jessica Longhurst.

By W.G. Ramirez

While three of Indianapolis’ wins this season were against teams considered less-than impressive (saving room for an opinion on the Dolphins), it’s two wins in the last three weeks that have everyone noting there’s nothing fluky – er, Lucky – about the Colts.

On the contrary, behind quarterback Andrew Luck, these Colts were anything but fortuitous in a dominating 27-7 win at San Francisco on Sept. 22, and in a 34-28 home shootout victory over the Seahawks.

Line1_PROOFThe second-year quarterback threw a pair of touchdown passes and guided the Colts on two time-consuming scoring drives in the fourth quarter, taking the lead on Donald Brown’s 3-yard TD run with 8:55 to play, last week against Seattle. It was his ninth winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most through the first 21 games by any quarterback that began his career dating back to 1970.

Now, in the Colts and Bolts’ first meeting since Peyton Manning was yelling “Omaha” for Indy, Luck is looking to run his string of good fortune to 3-0 with a suitcase in hand.

Meanwhile, the Chargers are in after committing five turnovers in a loss at Oakland including three interceptions by Philip Rivers, who has two straight 400-yard passing games and three in four games. Though he looked awfully different than the quarterback who threw for 401 yards and three touchdowns to beat the Dallas Cowboys a couple weeks back, believe it or not, he could become the first quarterback in NFL history to have three straight 400-yard passing games.

He can’t get too cocky, though, as the Colts’ stingy pass defense has intercepted seven passes in five games. As a matter of fact, the Colts are tied for fourth in the league with a plus-6 turnover differential.

There are several angles to look at with these two teams, as it could go from being a defensive struggle to an offensive shootout very quickly. It could come down to the end and take a stroke of ‘Luck’ or ‘Bolt’ of lightning, you just never know.

Let’s take a look at the key matchup…

KEY SHOWDOWN: Andrew Luck vs. Chargers’ Defense Line

Honestly, as impressive as the Colts were in their win over Seattle, it was a physical game in which – let’s face it – Indianapolis did after rally from after a horrendous start that included a blocked punt to give the Seahawks an early 12-0 lead. Now the Colts are making their third long road trip in four weeks.

True, they won the first two roadies at San Francisco and Jacksonville by a combined score of 64-10, and they can take solace in knowing the Chargers have allowed some glaring numbers on defense (432 yards per game). Then again, San Diego’s two wins came against highly explosive Philadelphia and the same Dallas team that almost knocked off Denver.

The Chargers will need to play exquisite on defense, if Luck plays his best game – something he’s been doing. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound quarterback is emerging quickly as the best young quarterback in the game, as he calls the signals and leads an offense as it’s supposed to be done. His fundamentals are near-flawless, and what has really matured him and separated him from the pack of others who broke out with him last year is his patience.

The biggest question about him, and we’ll all have to wait for the answer, is how will he do in his Monday night debut?

BY THE NUMBERS: Indianapolis (-2, 50) at San Diego

While Luck has spearheaded the Colts’ offense this season, it was the rushing game that was ranked 4th in the league overall to start Week 6; the passing game ranked 24th.

Indy’s pass defense has been stellar, as it came into the weekend 6th in the NFL. The rushing D has been less-than impressive, as it was 30th.

The Colts arrive in Southern California on ATS win streaks of 8-0 against losing teams, 6-3 on the highway, 8-1 on Monday Night Football, 4-1 in October and 12-5 dating back to last season.

Indianapolis has stayed under in 23 of its last 31 games dating back.

The Chargers came into Week 6 with the fifth-ranked offense overall, led by the fifth-best passing game. However, their defense has been lacking and entered the weekend ranked 27th overall. San Diego has been beaten by both facets, ranking 24th against the run and 27th against the pass.

The Bolts are tied for 28th at minus-8 in turnover differential.

San Diego checks into primetime on ATS runs of 5-0 after a straight-up loss and 4-1 overall. Conversely, the Bolts are mired in spread slides of 6-11 at home and 0-6 in the month of October.

In this series, however, the Chargers have covered 6 of 7 and the underdog is on a sterling 8-0 ATS run at the window. The under has cashed 5 of the last 6 meetings.

INJURY REPORT: COLTS: DNP (Did Not Practice): S LaRon Landry (ankle), LB Bjoern Werner (foot). LIMITED: LB Erik Walden (elbow). FULL: RB Stanley Havili (ankle), DT Ricky Jean Francois (groin). CHARGERS: DNP: LB Donald Butler (groin), LB Jarret Johnson (hamstring), CB Richard Marshall (groin), G Chad Rinehart (toe). LIMITED: T D.J. Fluker (calf). FULL: RB Ryan Mathews (concussion), CB Johnny Patrick (chest).

ON DECK: The Chargers will make their third trip across the country, while Indianapolis and Luck will play arguably the franchise’s biggest game in history.

San Diego is laying 7.5 at Jacksonville, while the Colts are catching 5.5 at home from Manning and the visiting Broncos.