2. Zack Grienke. The hottest pitcher in the first half of the season (11-4 with a 1.95 ERA through the end of June) has seen his Q rating drop in the second half. Not only has his performance dipped (0-3 in July) from his out-of-this-world start but he plays for the Royals in Kansas City, which is not a place the mind tends to linger once the postseason races heat up. But there is no ignoring Grienke's franchise-record 15 strikeout performance against the Indians.He struck out the side (on just 12 pitches) in the fifth and struck out two batters in five other innings. He struck out twelve opponents swinging and missing. And he didn't even come out for the ninth inning. His AL-leading ERA now rests, quite comfortably, at 2.43.
3. Mark Sanchez. Even though he was shaken and stirred by the Baltimore Ravens defense on Monday the Jets have reportedly named the No. 5 pick in the 2009 NFL draft as the starting quarterback. He has started exactly 16 collegiate games and zero professional games. But that smile! That charisma! Those abs! I was really a fan of the apprenticeship that Chad Pennington served under Vinnie Testaverde before taking the reins and don't believe that the success of Matty Ryan and Joe Flacco undoes the years and years of struggles by freshman signal callers but I'm OK with this move. I mean, if Pennington were still around (and this team were likely defending their 2008 AFC East title) then I'd keep the Trojan in the barn for a year. But there is no incumbent veteran to learn from. Kellen Clemens is more like a graduate assistant that helps grade papers than someone who should actually be teaching a class in quarterbacking.
The Jets defense figures to be solid if not spectacular as does the running game. The coach is charismatic and should block some of the media glare with the girth of his
4. Billy Wagner. All an organization and fan base can (reasonably) demand of a big-ticket free agent is that they be what they were supposed to be. Like the 2006 Chicago Bears. You can hope for more and you fear less but you just want anything you spend a lot of money to be as advertised. And Wagner was exactly as billed. He signed with the Mets after the 2005 season and was known as hard-throwing and occasionally hard to get along with. He was loud, he was mostly but not always very, very effective, and he was not going to shy away from anyone, whether it was an opponent, a quarrelsome teammate or a reporter with a tape recorder. He was all those things before he arrived in Queens and he was all of those things right through his last day in Queens. When he was in the clubhouse there was music (usually songs about hillbillies and horses) playing loudly and there was conversation. He brought some juice (and not just from the Copenhagen packed in his bottom lip) to a team that could be downright funereal the past two years. And he endearingly broke into tears last year when it looked like his career was over. As a Mets fan, I'll miss him. He was a guy on this team that was always accountable, even when he screwed up (like that 3-run ninth in Game 2 of the 2006 NLCS) and he was always giving it his all. I may have felt that he fell in love with the slider too much but he finished in the top ten in saves in 2006, 2007 and 2008, even though he missed the end of the year due to his injury. And I'm impressed by the way he battled back from Tommy John surgery. He nearly halved the recovery time and has been lights out thus far. He wants it. And his drive and candidness put the attitudes of some of his teammates in harsh relief. His star-crossed time New York is over and he walks healthily away to a team currently holding a playoff position. Good luck.
5. Carlos Pena. The power has been on all year. But the light switch upstairs was mostly in the off position. That's how Pena managed to lead the American League in home runs before the All-Star Game but initially be left off the roster. He was, after all, batting an anemic .228 at the time. Which actually looks great next to his post-break average of.202. Finally, though, Pena looks right in the box. He cracked two longballs last night as the Rays romped over the Blue Jays and is batting an even .400 this week. If he can keep it up (or at least keep it above .250) then this team can and will give the Red Sox a race in September.
Benched. Isiah Thomas. This guy! Oh, this guy. You'd think that after all he has been through over the past few years that he wouldn't needlessly make a spectacle out of himself. But like a moth to flame he's back on the front page of ESPN.com and in the headlines around the country for threatening to pull Florida International out of the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic because he doesn't want to play defending champion UNC in the opening round. For reals? You're going to drop out of a famous charity event, one that battles cancer, because you'd rather play Ohio State? Apparently, FIU was under the impression that they were in a different group from North Carolina until UNC released their schedule and it contained FIU in round one. And if you don't play Isiah's way then he wants to go home. Aside from being a completely asinine thing to do it's also a waste of a perfect teaching tool for his students, err... athletes. If I were him, I circle that game on the calendar and I tell my team that we're going to do everything we can to be in top condition by tip off of that game and then we're going to measure ourselves up against the best. I do this knowing that the loss is all but inevitable. Because that allows you to reset the clock at zero. You've checked the egos of your players and you have a tangible thing to build towards. From that day on you build towards a rematch or a meaningful game against another blue-blood program. This episode just goes to show that Isiah has no interest in being honest with himself or his players about their achievements or their place in the hoops world. He wants to avoid big teams and try to gain respect with smoke and mirrors. He wants to look good losing against Ohio State and then not have to face UNC in a later round. The only thing this guy is good at is giving me things to get worked up about. He is the UNC of that.