Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday's Starting Five

WWOD's daily Starting Five provides the talking points you'll need each day to confidently interact with your fellow sports enthusiasts (and your awkward boss who only is capable of making small talk with his employees about the Yankees and the Honor Roll status of his children) at the water cooler or impress members of the opposite gender at the lunch counter or post-work gin joint with your extreme mastery of the minutiae of athletic competition.

1. The Cleveland Cavaliers. There was nothing particularly interesting about the Cavs' 108-100 win over the Raptors at the Q on Tuesday night. Neither team ever distanced itself from the other. There was no large run. And no player went off for 30 points. In fact, just one player topped 25 points. Not surprisingly that player was Lebron James, with 28 points. It was a ho-hum win for the Cavs. And, I guess, that's the point. After a lackluster open to the 2009-2010 campaign, the team has found its stride. They've won 7 of their last 10 and are now 15-3 at home. And two of those three home losses came during the first fortnight of the season. Like I said, the game wasn't one for the time capsule but it was chock full of significance. For starters, Shaq surpassed the 28,000 point plateau and noted wryly that if he'd been a better free throw shooter that he'd already be at 30,000. Another item of potential significance was that the Cavs held Hedo Turkoglu to just 3 points on 1-6 shooting in 24 minutes. This jumped out at me from the boxscore because I certainly remember Hedo draining some big shots for the Magic against the Lebronaliers in last year's playoffs and I don't doubt that LBJ remembers that, too.

2. Rachel Alexandra. Horse racing is known as the "Sport of Kings." And OTB parlors around the country are generally full of male aspirants. But yesterday the sport crowned its queen. The lady horse that won the Preakness was named the 2009 Horse of the Year. Rachel Alexandra was a perfect 8 for 8 in 2009 and bested the boys in three of those races, including the middle leg of the Triple Crown. Unusually, the second-place finisher was another filly, Zenyatta. It was the first time that there were two female finalists for the honor. Zenyatta was also undefeated last year.

3. Felix Hernandez. With all of the attention on the Phillies' acquisition of Roy Halladay this winter there has been surprisingly little attention paid to the team that may have improved its pitching rotation the most this winter. And, attention must be paid! The Mariners added former Philly ace Cliff Lee to their staff. And, the best part for the seamheads of the Emerald City is that Lee will be the No. 2 behind the runner up for the 2009 AL Cy Young Award, Felix Hernandez. And, not only do the M's enter next season with arguably the best 1-2 combo (and, no AJ Burnett is not better than Lee) in baseball, but Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik just locked up King Felix to a five-year deal that will pay the young ace approximately $80 million. He turned 23 last August and went 19-5 over 34 starts and pitched to a 2.49 ERA with 217 strikeouts.

4. Clint Dempsey. Word spread more quickly and with greater urgency than any US Soccer news that I can remember when Dempsey injured his knee playing for Fulham last weekend against Blackburn. Fulham skipper Roy Hobson noted after the match that "the initial prognosis for Clint is not good." Early word was that he had torn ligaments that would need to be surgically repaired. This put his participation in the upcoming World Cup in serious jeopardy, weakening a US side already depleted by injuries. Thankfully, though, reports have come out that he wasn't injured as badly as was initially feared. Surgery is now unlikely and Dempsey has an honest shot at being ready to go by June. Having risen from a hardscrabble upbringing in Nacogdoches, Texas to the fastest and most physically demanding soccer league in the world, Dempsey is a fighter by nature and I don't doubt that he'll do everything possible to be in top shape by the time the national team departs for South Africa. He is the X-factor for the US Men's National Team because he has shown flashes of inspirational improvisational play that are side has historically lacked. Of course, he also goes missing for large patches of time. But the guy has a penchant for scoring the goal when you need it most and I think that we need him to make the sort of run that we are capable of making.

5. Shaun Ellis. The longest-tenured member of the New York Jets Football Club broke his large, meaty left hand on his first defensive play in Sunday's upset win over the San Diego Chargers. He temporarily left the field to have his paw encased in a makeshift cast. He returned with a club at the end of his long, muscular left arm. Drafted by Jets with the 12th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, Ellis was the highest drafted player of the last generation of young players brought in by this franchise. John Abraham, Chad Pennington and Anthony Becht were also drafted by the Jets in the first round that year. That group had a few solid seasons, a few playoff appearances and narrowly missed reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2005. But kicker Doug Brien missed a kick in Pittsburgh and Ellis' has yet to advance this far in the postseason.

Coaches and players have changed over the years but Ellis has been a constant, playing 16 games in 7 of his 10 seasons and no fewer than 13 in any campaign. The defensive end out of the University of Tennessee, where he overlapped with Peyton Manning, isn't a guy to run his mouth. Which makes him almost a strange fit on Rex Ryan's defense but he's a warrior. He's postponed necessary surgery on his left hand until after this week's game because there wouldn't be enough time for the skin to heal in order for him to play. He'll have surgery next week regardless because the doctors insist that he'd be ready to go again two weeks after having his hand repaired. Just in time for the Super Bowl.

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