Edwin and Frank Plus Eight

Francisco Liriano’s no-hitter Tuesday night was just so unoriginal. The White Sox countered the struggling Minnesota Twins ace with a pitcher that tossed his own no-hitter as an Arizona Diamondback last season. Ironically, Liriano’s no-hitter closely resembled Edwin Jackson’s history-maker. The common thread between them, however, is less obvious than it may seem, but it exposes a growing trend in professional baseball.

First, let’s acknowledge the similarities between the two no-no’s of Liriano and Jackson. First and foremost, strikeout-to-walk ratio. Each pitcher walked more opposing batters than they struck out for a combined K/BB ratio of 8/14 or 0.57. Typically, the average K/BB ratio among MLB pitchers hovers around 2.0, and as you’d expect, it is much better in no-hitters. Because of the high walk totals, each pitcher threw over 120 pitches (Jackson’s 149 pitches are the most ever thrown in a no-hitter). Both pitchers won the game 1-0 on the road with the tying run on base in the 9th inning.

But hidden behind the numbers and the comparisons are the eight other men on the field when that 27th out was recorded. When a pitcher puts that many men on base and allows that many balls to be put in play, he has to rely on his teammates. Jackson needed help from catcher Miguel Montero and third basemen Mark Reynolds to etch his name in the record books. Likewise, Liriano’s effort was boosted by a controversial double play in the 8th inning and a masterful pick and throw by Danny Valencia in the 7th. Three double plays also aided the southpaw.

It seems that no-hitters have become increasingly more common in the past few years. There could be many explanations for this phenomenon, but I believe the real reason lies beyond the pitcher or the opposing hitters. According to historical data, fielding percentage has been rising steadily. Because fielding methods have improved over time, major leaguers commit fewer errors. With solid defense backing them up, Jackson and Liriano completed the feat without inducing a large amount of swings and misses.

This is not to rain on Liriano’s parade. He pitched a wonderful game. His pitches had a lot of movement and he kept his composure throughout the game.

Nonetheless, this was a team no-hitter tonight, something Edwin Jackson can relate to.

Here’s a recap of the game.

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The Heat Get Hot

Despite the inconsistency and unexpectedness of the first three days of the 2011 NBA playoffs, one team has been somewhat consistent. With two of the top five scorers in the league, you’d think the Miami Heat were winning by running the score into triple digits.

On the contrary, the Heat have not yet scored 100 points in their two games against the Philadelphia 76ers. The dominance has come on the defensive side of the ball. The consistency was noticeable on nearly every 76ers possession on Monday night. Whether altering shots, staying active with their hands or turning the ball over leading to those coveted fast breaks, the Heat were relentless.

More importantly, the intensity extends beyond LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. So far, the much-maligned supporting cast has been bolstered by solid contributions from Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers. Anthony has blocked four shots in the series and the 76ers shot a measly 34.2% from the field on Monday. Amazingly, the 76ers top four scorers, who combined for 56.8 points per game in the regular season, were held to 28 points in the loss. The Heat displayed a team defense that fed off the energy of their star trio.

When they come out tonight and defend the way they did,” 76ers coach Doug Collins said after the game, “it’s going to be very difficult for us to beat them.

While other contenders show chinks in the armor, the Miami Heat, with three of the game’s most prolific scorers, are committing to defense and thereby emerging as perhaps the leading contender for the title.

Here’s a recap of the game.


From Wacky Weekend, One Team Gets Defensive

What a weekend of basketball! Historic upsets, MVP performances and game-winning shots foreshadowed a potentially exhilarating two months of NBA playoffs.

Although the games and individual performances were great, much of the defense was subpar. Teams such as Chicago, Orlando and Los Angeles played uncharacteristically poor defense. The Lakers in particular allowed the New Orleans Hornets to score 109 points (14 more than the Hornets averaged during the season). While the Bulls escaped with a narrow margin of victory, the Magic and Lakers enter the upcoming week with an 0-1 series deficit.

Despite the offensive outbursts, one championship contender made some halftime adjustments to reemphasize defense. Looking up from a 12 point hole at the half, the Boston Celtics suddenly remembered what wins championships. They limited the high-scoring New York Knicks to 34 points in the second half on 32.6% shooting. Paul Pierce hounded a frustrated Carmelo Anthony all game, leading to a game-changing play in the 4th quarter. With 21 seconds left, the Knicks had a one point lead and the physical battle between Pierce and Anthony led to an offensive foul on ‘Melo (his fifth personal of the game).

Whatever Doc Rivers discussed at halftime seemed to motivate the former champs. After the Knicks hit five of their first eight 3-pointers, a tighter Celtics defense allowed the Knicks to convert only 3 of 15 treys (Anthony was 0 for 5) after halftime.

Although the absence of Kendrick Perkins was somewhat noticeable throughout the game, Jermaine O’Neal and Kevin Garnett shut down Amare Stoudemire when it mattered most. Garnett dominated the rebounds all game and O’Neal blocked four shots, one of which may haunt Stoudemire for weeks.

They committed to team defense, held one of the two Knicks stars in check and intensified their focus in crunch time.

It’s only one game, but if the other contenders want to capture the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they might want to take note of the Celtics second half shutdown.

Here’s a recap of the game.


The Price is Right

The Boston Bruins certainly know the Montreal Canadiens. The two teams have faced each other more times than any other rivalry in the NHL. While the Canadiens have the better overall record, each team has had its respective streak of dominance.

This is the Habs time. After a surprising appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010, the Montreal Canadiens promptly traded away the goalie most responsible for theirĀ  playoff success.

On Thursday, Carey Price validated that trade. After a solid 38 win season, Price recorded his third career playoff shutout for the 6th-seeded Habs. Yet after the game, Price laid much of the credit on his teammates.

In reality, although Price finished with 31 saves, many Bruin shots were blocked by Canadien defenders. Brent Sopel and James Wisniewski each blocked four shots, and the Habs were extremely successful at keeping the puck away from the net. In one of the few clean shots from the Bruins, Brad Marchand broke ahead of the defenders nearly midway through the 1st Period. Trying to get to Price’s left side, the big netminder popped his pad out and clipped the puck wide to the boards.

If the Canadien defensemen keep throwing their bodies in front of Bruin shots and Carey Price continues to stay in a zone, expect another deep playoff run from the Habs.

Here’s a recap of the game.


Consistently Underrated

Dan Haren is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He has been for the past five years. It’s amazing this guy is playing for his fourth team in eight seasons.

On Tuesday, Haren flat out dominated a hot Cleveland Indians team that came into the game averaging over 5.5 runs per game. In an early nod to last year’s “Season of the No-Hitter,” Haren flirted with history allowing only one hit to Shin-Soo Choo in the fourth inning.

His eight strikeouts represented a lesson on variety. With no specific “out pitch,” Haren threw slow curveballs, hard breakers and low-90’s heat to rack up the K’s. His ability to locate and, more importantly, keep the ball down contributed to his success.

With ten Gold Glove awards playing defense behind him and a manager that stresses fundamentals, Haren simply kept the ball in play and watched his defense do much of the work. Although it was Haren that caught Orlando Cabrera stealing in the second inning. Cabrera left too early and, after Haren initiated the rundown, Mike Scioscia’s fundamentals went to work. It may seem mundane, but those plays often go wrong with less focused teams.

The defensive play of the game, however, was in the eight inning on a long fly ball by Matt LaPorta to right center field. Torii Hunter, with nine of those Gold Gloves, showed that a switch from center to right field hasn’t affected his ability to make a catch at the wall. LaPorta’s helpless expression described the entire game for the Indians. One dominant pitcher just doing his thing.

Here’s a recap of the game.


Playoffs Bring Defense

With the playoffs approaching in both the NHL and NBA, a fresh energy has dominated many of the recent games. A new sense of urgency. A little more physicality. A commitment to defense.

How else did Mike D’Antoni’s New York Knicks hold an opponent to 92 points? Or the Carolina Hurricanes silence the best offense in hockey?

Defense. And not just great individual players. As the games increase in significance, players tend to commit to team defense. It’s no longer about statistics or highlights, but with the Hurricanes fighting for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, the players put a little more emphasis on the team.

This was no more evident than the victory against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday. All-Star Cam Ward deserves much of the credit that comes with his fourth shutout of the season, but a team does not hold the Detroit Red Wings scoreless for 60 minutes without working together. Detroit, with a roster full of scorers, suffered its first shutout since back-to-back goose eggs on Feb. 4 and 5.

Detroit had no shortage of attempts on Wednesday either. Ward saved 42 shots, his teammates blocked another 16 and the ‘Canes killed three power plays, including a 4-minute double minor in the 3rd period.

In fact, that 4-minute penalty kill represented the apex of the Hurricanes’ effort. With just under 15 minutes remaining, the Red Wings seemed to have something going. A long wristshot by Jakub Kindl was followed by a rebounder by Todd Bertuzzi and a scramble by Pavel Datsyuk. The ‘Canes quickly migrated to the net with fluidity and purpose. Datsyuk and Bertuzzi could barely see Cam Ward let alone slip the puck by him. Quick responses and communication by the ‘Canes eliminated any damage.

In reality, if someone followed Bertuzzi throughout the game, he’d think the veteran had a hat trick. The guy was all over the place, shooting, passing and setting screens. But the playoff-caliber defense by the Hurricanes was the perfect answer.

Games like this make the playoffs feel just a bit closer.

Here’s a recap of the game.


Something’s Brewing

The Milwaukee Brewers have been an above average offensive team for several seasons. They combine power and speed and can hit up and down the lineup. Yet they’ve made only one uneventful playoff appearance since 1982.

So this season General Manager Doug Melvin committed to pitching, sending a gaggle of prospects to the American League for talented righties, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Management felt that a strong rotation would complement the powerful offense and propel the team to the top of the National League Central for the first time.

So far things haven’t worked out as planned. A cracked rib knocked Greinke out for at least the first month of the season and Marcum dealt with shoulder tightness in Spring Training. Even more worrisome, the offense is averaging less than three runs per game in the young season.

On Tuesday, however, the Brewers needed little offense to earn their first win of the season. In his fourth season with the club, Yovani Gallardo dominated the Atlanta Braves, tossing a shutout while facing only 28 hitters. His defense turned two double plays and caught Dan Uggla stealing after he overslid second base.

But this was all about Gallardo. He was as present on defense as the position players, fielding ground balls and covering first base. The 18 ground balls he induced were a result of unpredictability and perfect location. Every time a Braves hitter expected a fastball, he received a slider or curve. Every time he expected a breaking ball, Gallardo powered a fastball. In the end, the visitors tallied two singles, two walks and a lot of weak swings.

The shutout was significant because the Brewers hitters managed only one run (scored by Gallardo). The pitchers’ duel was not exactly what Brewers fans had in mind when anticipating a lineup with Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun, but a win’s a win. And with former Cy Young winner Greinke hopefully anchoring the rotation at some point, a defense-led team could still wreak havoc in the questionable division.

Here’s a recap of the game.