• No doom and gloom for the Texas Rangers

    Professional sports are a business, and fans of the Texas Rangers were reminded of that in December. Longtime face of the franchise Michael Young was traded to Philadelphia. The tip of the Rangers’ offensive spear the last five years, Josh Hamilton, left for enemy territory and signed a contract with the Los Angeles Angels. Fan favorite Mike Napoli changed zip codes and left for Boston.

    While the holes left by those defections seem ominous heading into the 2013 season, Rangers fans need not fret. While the Rangers played with a full deck the last three seasons, two of which landed them in the World Series, the Rangers still have more than enough fire power to compete for a division crown and a chance to finally win their first ever World Series.

    The Rangers return their top three starters from last year’s 93-win team. Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish were both All-Stars in 2012 and both held sub 4.00 ERAs through the end of the season. Jon Daniels and his staff also decided to move flame-throwing righty Alexi Ogando from the bullpen back into the rotation, where he was an All-Star and anchor through the 2011 season. Derek Holland, coming off his 175-inning campaign last season figures to have more in the tank heading into 2013, and an unnamed fifth starter out of a pool of promising prospects figures to round out what should be a rather formidable rotation. And whatever you do, don’t forget that Colby Lewis will return to the rotation at some point in the summer. He’s arguably the best pitcher in the Rangers’ recent run of dominance, and the 2012 season started going sideways almost as soon as Lewis went down with injury. His return should provide a big boost.

    The bullpen lost key pieces in Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, and Alexi Ogando’s move to the starting rotation doesn’t help the cause. Even with all those subtractions, the bullpen still figures to be good enough to get the job done. Left-hander Robbie Ross figures to be ready for a more prominent role in the back end of the bullpen if he doesn’t win a rotation spot, and the signing of Joakim Soria will help when he returns from Tommy John surgery. Joe Nathan should continue to be a rock as the closer, and the free agent addition of Jason Frasor should add to the depth. The kids, including Tanner Scheppers, Wilmer Font and Martin Perez will also beef up the pen and add quality depth.

    The pitching looks to be in good shape heading into spring training barring any injuries, but the offense is where the question marks start to seep in. The loss of Hamilton will undoubtedly sting, but Mike Napoli had a rough year at the dish and Michael Young was one of the statistically worst everyday players in all of baseball. Past nostalgic memories of those players don’t contribute to future success, and although their losses will be felt, the Rangers should be just fine. Healthy seasons from Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz will go a long way, and a new hitting coach, who can hopefully get Ian Kinsler back to his productive ways, will help as well. The addition of Lance Berkman to the middle of the lineup should help to ease the loss of Hamilton and the Rangers will have a couple of the best prospects in all of baseball, Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt, waiting in the wings in Round Rock if the offense gets off to a rough start. While the Rangers may not lead the league in runs scored like they did in 2012, they should produce enough to keep them in competition.

    Yes, change is always scary, especially when you get away from a couple of players who were such core pieces in the franchise’s first taste of real success. But looking back at the past couple of World Series winners, it’s not always the most talented team that comes out on top. The Giants, twice, and the Cardinals were both anchored by pitching and defense with just enough offense to get the job done, and that looks like what the Rangers have heading into 2013. If the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays have taught us anything, it’s that pitching and defense matter most. Don’t fret the upcoming 2013 season, Rangers fans. Barring anything catastrophic, they will be right in the thick of things come October.

  • Desmond Harrison commits to Texas

    Contra Costa Community College offensive tackle Desmond Harrison verbally committed to Texas on Monday afternoon.

    Harrison picked the Longhorns over offers from Arizona State, Southern California, North Carolina State and others. He will be eligible to play for two seasons within a three-season span.

    Although Harrison may not immediately crack the starting lineup, his greatest contributions will be adding depth and versatility to the Texas offensive line. Harrison’s best assets are his nimble footwork and superior athleticism, especially given the former power forward’s 6-foot-8, 310-pound frame.

    Harrison’s commitment is the 14th of the 2013 class, and provides some momentum for Texas recruiting. Texas’ last verbal commitment was on Oct. 8, when Livingston athlete Chevoski Collins picked the Longhorns. Since that time two former members of the class decommitted, and Texas lost out on several other recruits.

    Texas will likely add two to three more members to this unusually small recruiting class before National Signing Day on Feb. 6. Potential candidates for the last few spots include Irving offensive guard Rami Hammad and Waco lineman Andrew Billings.

  • NFC Championship Game a Matchup of Youth, Inexperience

    When the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons face off in Sunday’s NFC Championship game, there are bound to be some players with wide-eyed expressions on their faces.  That’s because neither team boasts many players with much playoff experience, as both Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick earned their first playoff victories last week.  With so much at stake, how these teams handle this unfamiliar territory will determine who moves on to the Super Bowl.  With that, here are a few storylines to keep in mind heading into Atlanta on Sunday:

    1) Can the Falcons’ Offense Fly High?

    Boasting a fearsome duo at the wide receiver position in Julio Jones and Roddy White, Atlanta posses some serious talent at its skill positions on offense.  Oh, and they also have Tony Gonzalez, who’s still playing at a hall of fame level despite his age.  However, the 49ers defense, lead by linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end Aldon Smith, is a physical unit that is capable of pressuring opposing quarterbacks at will.  How Matt Ryan handles San Francisco’s blitzes will play a huge role in this game.

    2) Slowing Down Kaepernick

    If the Falcons want to stand a chance, it’s imperative that they slow down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who amassed more than 400 total yards of offense against Green Bay last week, rushing for two touchdowns and passing for two more scores.  What makes Kaepernick most dangerous is his ability to get out of the pocket and throw on the run.  In order for Atlanta to be successful, they need to keep Kaepernick stationary and contain him when he runs the read-option.

    3) Fool Me Once, Shame on You. Fool Me Twice….

    The 49ers were that close to earning a Super Bowl appearance last year, when they lost at home to the eventual champion New York Giants in overtime, 20-17.  Here they are a year later in the same position, only this time they’re heading into the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons went 7-1 during the regular season.  Having gotten back to within one game of the Super Bowl for the second straight year, will San Francisco get over the hump, or will Matt Ryan earn his second straight playoff victory having none before 2012?  Either will be a hot topic come Monday morning.

    Prediction:

    Although the Falcons have been basically unbeatable in the Georgia dome over the past several years, history has shown that teams can challenge them there in the playoffs, as they lost to Green Bay in 2011 and narrowly escaping against the Seahawks last week.  Despite Colin Kaepernick’s inexperience, he will turn in a good enough performance to go along with a strong outing by the San Francisco defense, and the 49ers will be on their way to New Orleans for a long-awaited Super Bowl appearance.

    Score: 38-24, San Francisco

  • AFC Championship Features Rematch Between Hated Foes

    In game that few people expected them to be a part of, the Baltimore Ravens enter Sunday as nine-point underdogs to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.  However, the Ravens and fifth-year Quarterback Joe Flacco weren’t phased by similar circumstance last week, when they went into Denver and pulled out a double overtime victory over the Broncos.  Can they do it again?  Here are a few storylines to follow heading into Sunday’s AFC showdown:

    1) Oh, You Again

    The Pats and Ravens are very familiar with each other, as Sunday’s game will make it their second straight meeting in the AFC Championship game and third playoff contest in the past four years.  Although New England is virtually unbeatable at home in the playoffs, Baltimore blew them out 33-14 in 2009 and narrowly lost 20-23 after Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds.  Clearly, the Ravens aren’t afraid of heading into Foxborough.

    2) Matchup to Watch: Aqib Talib vs. Torrey Smith

    Plenty will be made of the chess match between QB Tom Brady and LB Ray Lewis in this game, and rightfully so.  However, a matchup that may be more intriguing will be between Pats’ corner Aqib Talif and Ravens’ wide receiver Torrey Smith.  Smith burnt New England for 126 yards and two touchdowns when the two teams met earlier this season, and hauled in another two last week with veteran corner Champ Bailey covering him.  However, Talib, who New England acquired from Tampa Bay midseason, has brought some swagger to the Patriot defense with his fiery attitude and physical style of play.  Can he contain Smith?  The answer to that may determine this game’s outcome.

    3) Can Joe Flacco Win the Big One?

    Flacco’s been heavily critiqued over the past several years, as many people in the sports world have begun to wonder whether or not he has what it takes to win a championship, despite the fact that he is the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.  After last week’s victory in Denver in which Flacco threw three touchdowns and outplayed four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning, people had better start acknowledging his abilities.  However, out-dueling Tom Brady in Foxborough is never easy, even if Flacco has done it before.

    Prediction:

    Although Baltimore is no pushover and will give the Pats all they can handle, New England just has too many weapons on the offensive side, even with Rob Gronkowski out with a broken forearm.  With Tom Brady playing like well, Tom Brady, and their defense playing its best football of the year, New England will make enough plays to defeat Joe Flacco and the Ravens.

    Score: 31-24

  • Texas could have issues with Kansas' bigs

    Cameron Ridley dunks against UCLA in Dec. 2012. 
    Cameron Ridley dunks against UCLA in Dec. 2012. 

    The Longhorns have gotten off to a sluggish start in conference play in 2013, losing their first three games against Big 12 opponents.

    Upsetting No. 4 Kansas on Saturday could go a long way in righting the ship for the Longhorns and would provide them with a much needed momentum kick, but the numbers suggest that Texas will have its hands full with the Kansas big men.

    The Longhorns have had their fair share of trouble against post-up players this season, especially against premier opponents. Baylor big men Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson combined for 43 points and 22 rebounds in their win against Texas on Jan. 5, while Michigan State center Derrick Nix scored 25 points and grabbed 11 boards in a Dec. 22 victory.  

    The Jayhawks will have the same opportunity to exploit the Texas front court, as their 7-foot, 235-lb. center Jeff Withey will easily be the biggest player on the court. The senior is enjoying a strong 2012-13 campaign, averaging 13.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while averaging just under 30 minutes per contest. Withey is also a terror on the defensive end, blocking 4.7 shots a game, second-best in the nation and identical to Anthony Davis’ clip a season ago.

    A large component of Texas’ issues against big, physical back-to-the-basket players can be attributed to the Longhorns’ overall lack of size. Only one player, freshman Prince Ibeh, stands at 6 feet 10 inches, and he only averages 10.4 minutes per game. The freshman could see the floor more on Saturday in an attempt to compromise Withey, but the Kansas center still possesses considerably more size and experience.  

    Texas has relied heavily on its perimeter scorers through 16 games, and this is a significant reason why its .401 field goal percentage ranks 304th in the nation. Longhorns big men Connor Lammert, Cameron Ridley and Jaylen Bond have each converted on less than half of their shot attempts, and because of this, Texas has lacked a dynamic scorer at the post positions all season. 

    Kansas has not had this problem, as the Jayhawks are 13th in the nation with a .489 field goal percentage. They will be eager to exploit this mismatch against Texas, as Withey, Kevin Young and, to a lesser extent, Perry Ellis will each have the chance to score and rebound near the rim. And then, out on the perimeter, there’s freshman sensation Ben McLemore, who’s dealing with a tweaked ankle but is putting up 16.4 points per contest. 

    Should Withey and company play well Saturday, it would not be an unprecedented occurrence as Kansas big men have given the Longhorns trouble over the years. Last season, Thomas Robinson racked up 25 points and 14 boards in his final home game, and in 2003 Nick Collison had one of the most memorable games in this rivalry’s history by registering 24 points and 23 rebounds in a 90-87 win.  

    The Longhorns will be hungry to make a statement this Saturday at home against Kansas, but the inside presence of the Jayhawks should make this difficult.

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