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A Third Article and Would you like to hear my voice?

The following also appeared in the most recent Villanova Times. Since both teams have since been eliminated, consider this post a belated eulogy.

How the O’s and A’s Made the Postseason

The playoff berths for the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles are without a doubt the two biggest surprises of the season (speaking strictly team-wise; for a review of individual players, see the sidebar). Both teams were near-universally picked to finish in the cellars of their respective divisions, and for most of the season baseball waited for the other shoe to drop, the cows to come home—what have you. But the AL West championship for the A’s and the wild card for the Orioles defy all clichés, and careful attention should be paid to how exactly these two teams managed to win 90-plus games.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter has received much of the credit for Baltimore’s first postseason berth since 1997. It started in May, when Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci identified a quirky trend.

“Give him two spring trainings with a club (consider the first a writeoff for evaluation and culture shock) and you’ll see the payoff,” Verducci wrote in an article for SI.com. Basically, Showalter’s teams always perform well in his second full season as manager—and 2012 was Showalter’s second full season in Baltimore. Showalter Magic, right?

Maybe. The most amazing stat concerning the Orioles is their 29-9 record in one-run games. For nearly all of the season, the Orioles allowed more runs than they scored. Naturally, negative run differentials are almost always achieved by losing teams (the last team to get outscored on the season and still make the playoffs: the 2007 Diamondbacks); but Baltimore’s amazing record in close games overcame this symptom of inadequacy. For this, their bullpen is responsible. And Showalter is responsible for the bullpen.

Baltimore had the third-best bullpen ERA in the AL (3.00), but the top two teams (the Rays and A’s) came nowhere near Baltimore’s success in close games. That’s because Showalter managed his relief arms brilliantly. Without fail he brought in the best guys at the most critical times.

Leverage Index (LI), one of those new-fangled stats you may have heard about, measures the tension and importance of events in a game. Not all one-run leads are created equal: we know that a pitcher ahead by one in the ninth who has just loaded the bases is in a lot more trouble than a pitcher up by one in the first with no one on and two out. All LI does is quantify that difference; a neutral LI is 1; anything higher signifies a higher-leverage, or more tense, situation. One of the best uses of LI is determining which relievers pitch the toughest innings for a team.

For the Orioles, the four pitchers who pitched the toughest innings according to LI were four of the five best relievers on the team, according to ERA (minimum 20 innings pitched). These four—Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala and Darren O’Day—accounted for half of all the innings pitched by the Baltimore bullpen. In other words, Showalter made the very most of his best arms.

Oakland’s success can be explained with more conventional statistics. Of all 16 A’s pitchers (minimum 30 IP), only rookie Tyson Ross had an ERA over four (6.50 in 73.1 IP). The starting rotation finished third in the AL in ERA (3.80) while rookies accounted for 68 percent of the rotation’s total innings. Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker, who came to the team as prized returns from the Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill trades, respectively, have led the team in games started, innings pitched, wins and Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

On offense, the A’s mitigated their mediocrity through platoons. A platoon is when two players share time at a position, usually because, alone, each is incomplete offensively. The best example of this strategy is found at first base, where the A’s platooned lefty-masher Chris Carter with Brandon Moss, the bane of right-handers. With this method, Oakland squeezed every last drop of offensive production out of the first base position, like a bottle of ketchup. The only AL teams to get more offense—as defined by wRC+, which adjusts for park factors and context—from their first basemen were the Tigers (Prince Fielder) and the Angels (Albert Pujols). Not bad when you consider the money issue: Fielder was paid $23 million this year; Pujols, $12 million; Moss and Carter, $480,000 (the major-league minimum) each. No wonder they shocked everyone.

***

My friend Frankie and I recorded a podcast about the major awards. I planned for it to appear on the paper’s website, but that still needs to be revamped. It still has time to appear there, since the awards aren’t given until after the World Series. My question is, Would you like to hear it here first?

Thank you for voting. Here’s a song.

Wait. No. That’s just what I’ve been having nightmares about. Here you go for real.

Another article, and drunk blog week

This appeared in the most recent Villanova Times.

Taken 2 Not as Absurd as I Hoped

I love Taken, and all I wanted for Taken 2 was Liam Neeson doing more of the same: karate chopping thugs in the neck, shooting wives to make a point, chasing cars on foot, threatening the Eiffel Tower, beating a guy over the head with a fire extinguisher, using fine china to break a trachea. It was okay to enjoy the violence because—what, you wouldn’t do all that to get your daughter back? What kind of parent are you?

Taken 2, judging by its marketing campaign, was made to exploit the sentiments of people who share my feelings about the original. And I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is how the producers, or director Olivier Megaton—whoever is responsible—failed to replicate the action, and therefore the hilarity, of Taken.

After all, there is no suspense; Liam Neeson did not do this movie to lose. So what matters is how he beats the mean Albanians, who are led by The Most Interesting Man in the World or his double or something and who seem to spawn more of themselves as the movie goes on. The how, of course, is the action: the karate chops, the gunshots, the escapes from mortal peril—but we can barely see the action when it happens. Because Megaton cuts between shots and camera angles so quickly and so often, each fight scene effects nothing more than disorientation. Combine this with an oddly mellow soundtrack, and you get taken (hah!) out of the movie during the most important moments.

I should say more about the soundtrack, because it provided the only surprise of the film. Two of the songs were lifted from the soundtrack to Drive, which came out last year and starred Ryan Gosling. In a key scene, Neeson’s daughter (played by Maggie Grace), is told to wait in a car for five minutes, and to flee alone once that time is passed. This mimics the rule for Gosling’s character in Drive, so the mimicry of the soundtrack during this scene may be homage.

In any case, that’s the only part of the film that still has me thinking. The dialogue was flat and obvious throughout. Usually hack screenwriting is funny, and my only theory as to why it wasn’t in this case: maybe when an entire script is dull, the joke is on us.

***

Black Star!

***

Semester break begins today. I am alone until next Sunday with nothing to do except work five hours every other day. In that time you can expect many a post written by an author influenced by a many a drink.

The first of many articles

I wrote, like, four articles for the most recent Villanova Times. Here’s the one that appeared on the front page. More, inferior articles to come in the next few days. Go Giants (and A’s). The articles might be a little different than the printed versions, because I don’t save the revisions made by my editor-peers.

***

My Time Among the Horse People

Dressage at Devon 2012

Photo credit: Molly Sapia

John Henderson, Dressage at Devon board member, takes the press on a barn tour. It’s only Wednesday (Sept. 26), the second day of this six-day horse show, so press doesn’t mean much: just me, my photographer and two older women from equestrian publications who have much nicer cameras than my photographer. We five stand at the threshold of what John calls his baby, a production studio for a live webcast of all the dressage action.

The studio is a room with a dozen screens, two soundboards and a red foam finger on a shelf that says “Dressage #1.” It is also, according to John, the future of Dressage at Devon—which, you ought to know, is itself the largest horse breed show in North America.

“We’re like the film industry in 1906,” John says. Ready to explode onto the cultural scene. The night before, Dressage at Devon doubled its audience with the webcast, though I don’t know if he means twice the total seating capacity (five thousand) or twice the number of people who actually attended these first two days, and it might sound condescending to ask for clarification.

“It takes one million dollars to put this show on,” John says. And he is more invested than anyone else. Not money-wise; he is the man behind the curtain. He chaired the 2005 committee that moved to split Dressage at Devon from its parent organization. He brought in vendors from the west coast and Canada, the boot maker from Ecuador. Ninety-seven percent of them also sponsor the event, so John co-produces commercials for the webcast. Dressage at Devon is a big deal in a small world, and John is optimistic it will grow beyond that.

But he knows its limitations, not least of which is the Devon Horse Show every spring. Held at the same fairgrounds, the Devon Horse Show showcases a wider array of equestrian events, like show jumping.

“Show jumping appeals to the American psyche—it’s exciting,” John says. “Crash and burn.” Either you’ve jumped the barrier or you haven’t.

Dressage, literally French for “training” and also known as horse ballet, has no such obviousness. In fact, the point is for horse and rider to appear completely natural together during a series of predetermined movements at prescribed gaits. Competitors ascend through several levels of training, the ultimate goal being to maximize the horse’s physique and responsiveness to commands. The skills learned in dressage apply to most other equestrian pursuits (the most notable exception is racing), from, yes, show jumping to hunting to warfare.

As such, the art of dressage goes back thousands of years. Xenophon of Athens, a contemporary of Socrates, codified many of the principles of classical dressage in his treatise On Horsemanship, which is the earliest surviving text on the subject. A soldier, Xenophon understood what made an ideal war-horse—more than anything else, extensive training. So, to avoid training unworthy horses, he identified the physical traits of young horses that hinted at a strong body later in life.

The judges do the same thing on Wednesday. Horses, separated into various breed-, size- and age-groups, trot around the inside edge of the main arena, scrutinized not so much for their execution, but for their materiale, their natural talent or potential.

So says the woman next to me, who declined to give her name. That’s okay; everything about her was typical of today’s group of fans: middle-aged, white, female, an amateur rider herself.

“The horse threw—” she reconsiders: “Let’s just say there was some bad behavior from the horse. But he placed because the judges saw some talent in his movement and gait.”

The official Dressage at Devon press kit likens this to looking at toddler and determining whether he or she would be good at ballet as an adult.

The riders we watch are local amateurs like her, competing with their own horses at the lower levels for prize ribbons, free saddle pads and a chance to qualify for higher competitions. Those who don’t qualify have a very expensive hobby.

“For most of us amateurs it’s just something we enjoy doing,” she says.

Even though there are only around five hundred people here (almost all in privately owned boxes on the western side of the arena), this subculture is large and avid enough to support three separate regional monthlies: Mid-Atlantic Horse, The Horse of Delaware Valley and Pennsylvania Equestrian. Advertisements for horses—priced from $7,000 to $28,500—and one for a horse farm—71 acres and an insulated barn in Munfordville, Kentucky for only $229,900—decorate telephone poles and a bulletin board outside the women’s bathroom. The vendors, their tents arranged like the air around a donut, mostly peddle tack, the necessary equipment and not-so-necessary accessories of equestrian enthusiasts.

The tack is priced exorbitantly, according to Valerie Chambers and Jackie Langdon, two seniors from Downingtown West High School who were able to attend without cutting because of Yom Kippur. They are enthusiasts, but with the ironic detachment of our generation; and they are my best window into this world of horse people.

“You have to be slightly crazy to trust a thousand-pound animal,” Jackie says, taking about herself and everyone else there.

They show me around the stores, giving me a much-needed initiation to all things tack. One tent has sample of the dirt-sand substance used in the arena and training grounds. I figure they might know what it’s really made of, so I ask.

“Rich people things,” Valerie says.

It’s hard not to scoff, even for these two horse people, who have been riding since before they started kindergarten.

How else do you respond to a horse massage pad that drapes the animal’s body like poncho? Whips of every length you dreamt of, combs for horses’ hair themselves made of horses’ hair, and saddles for each style of riding—anything a rider has a real or fabricated need for, right here.

The most ornate tent is not even occupied by a salesperson. Instead, just out front, a man in a smart suit and boots splashes around in a bucket filled with dirty water. Jackie is determined to try these boots on, and approaches the salesman to ask about the boots. He gives his pitch, waxing about the special material (used by no other boot, you know) that ensures waterproofing, cleverly waiting to the end to reveal the price: $400 or so. Jackie walks away, knowing that she cannot even fake the decadence needed for them.

There are few stores that don’t sell tack, and instead sell other things treasured by the horse people demographic: jewelry, ladies’ day hats, sweaters for dogs, and, because they really aren’t so different from you or me, food. Before the barn tour, as I wait on my photographer and Italian hoagie, the owner of the neighboring restaurant tent ambles over and chats with the guy making my sandwich. Business is slow, but they knew the first few days would be like that. Talk turns to the show.

“It’s like watching grass grow,” the neighbor says. “Friday, Saturday night, when they’re out there dancing [to music], it’s something to watch.” The sandwich-maker nods as he arranges my toppings with care and symmetry. His wife, who took my order at the counter, cracks how he acts like an artist when making hoagies.

The neighbor continues, “But today, it’s boring, unless you know what you’re looking for.”

Out on a bench just below the private boxes sits a gray-bearded man on the opposite side of the spectrum. He walks with a cane, hangs a green-and-white rosary around his neck, reads the newspaper with a giant magnifying glass and makes catcalls throughout the day in a low, booming voice:

“Hello there, handsome.”

“Shake that tail! What a beautiful tail!”

“Looking good!”

These phrases, frowned upon when directed toward a human, must be considered just as bad when yelled at horses. No one sits anywhere near him.

No one would have that luxury on Friday and Saturday night, when the arena is packed to see some of the best dressage horses in the world. Some of these horses and their riders competed in the London Olympics, including the Grand Prix champions, Jacqueline Brooks and D-Niro, a silver Swedish warmblood. They are quarantined in special stables, John says, and even he cannot access them. The judges are similarly prestigious, if their four- and five-star ratings, as declared by the very British public announcer, are any indication.

The spectacle for the Grand Prix is heightened by the music, which is often chosen by third-party experts with an eye for influencing the audience and the judges. Their routines, which must include certain moves in some order, are choreographed in the same manner. Jaimey Irwin rides Lindor’s Finest to a medley of ‘80s songs; music from The Dark Knight movies shows up in more than one routine; David Marcus, rider of the third-place Chrevi’s Capital, says later that all his music was from Clash of the Titans. The audience roars for the right routines. Many have rented headphones that provide running commentary from a dressage expert.

“The atmosphere is electric,” second-place rider Pierre St. Jacques says later at the press conference. “It’s that kind of experience that allows us to go to Europe and not be fazed.”

I take eager notes with four other reporters in this cellar-converted-bar. Two bottles of wine remain undrunk in the corner. Perhaps the only dry room in the area. Above, the vendors—some of whom could not watch the routines and so consoled themselves with wine (it’s not like anyone was going to shop during the show, anyway)—pack up their tack. Most of the audience has left, but a few parents, children and dogs held upright by their front legs remain for the sock-hop in the middle of the arena, which is Dressage at Devon tradition.

What do horse people do if not follow horses? Do the twist, they’re told, and they comply: the horses dance, then the horse people.

Soccer story that won’t get published anywhere but here

V-Times publication was pushed back, so this won’t run anymore.

The Wildcats of Villanova men’s soccer began Big East play last week with an exhilarating 1-1 draw against South Florida on Saturday, but not before shutting out non-conference rival Temple 1-0 on Tuesday at the West Campus Soccer Complex.

The game on Saturday was marked by strict officiating, as six yellow cards were issued, four to Villanova and two to USF. After a scoreless and sloppy first half, South Florida struck first in the 66th minute. Bulls sophomore Roberto Alterio (one of three Venezuelans and 15 international players on South Florida) struck a free kick from just outside the penalty box on the right. Senior Sebastien Thuriere received the ball—reached for and missed by Villanova goalkeeper John Fogarty, on the opposite side of the goal—and slipped it to senior defenseman Brenton Griffiths, who put it into the open net.

For the rest of regulation, the Wildcats dominated possession and monopolized scoring chances. After the first half, each team had taken six shots with only one on goal. By the end of the second half, Villanova had 22 shots (seven on goal) to South Florida’s 10 (three).

That flurry began with a series of crosses from the right side. Junior Bulls goalie Eric Osswald thwarted the spirited Wildcat attack with some spectacular diving saves, sometimes catching the ball, sometimes punching it away. Aside from two threatening South Florida counterattacks, Villanova’s control was complete.

In the 84th minute, Villanova’s efforts paid off. Sophomore midfielder Oscar Umar, from at least 10 yards outside the top right corner of the box, launched a cross that connected with sophomore Hayden Harr, who headed the ball past a diving Osswald into the left corner of the net. The Wildcats continued to attack the goal, and a low center pass from sophomore forward Aaron Dennis danced in front of the goal as time expired.

The two overtime periods were even except for one unbelievable moment. With about three minutes left in the first period, as the Bulls’ Alterio ran to receive a through-ball in the box, Fogarty ran up to grab it. Fogarty slid for it and missed, giving Alterio an open net. With only one Villanova defender nearby, Alterio rushed—and blasted the ball over the net and to the right.

In Tuesday’s contest, Villanova scored in the 41st minute off a throw-in from the right touch line near the goal line—though there is some question as to who actually did the scoring. Senior Alec Weiss heaved a ball toward the middle of the box, where it appeared to deflect off a Temple defender past their goalkeeper, junior Bobby Rosato. Villanova.com, the official site of Villanova athletics, credits the goal to Villanova senior defender Kyle McCarthy (his first of the year), but to most of the spectators it did not appear that any Wildcat touched the ball after Weiss threw it.

That score bore fruit to a series of attacking chances the Wildcats had in the last 10 minutes of the first half. Weiss attempted to play an incoming cross with a bicycle kick, but slipped, and a subsequent centering pass from junior Danny Gonzalez was just barely deflected by a Temple defender. Soon after, a chance was thwarted when junior forward Dylan Renna tripped near the edge of the box, possibly over the illegally outstretched foot of a Temple defender. If it was a foul, it was not serious enough for the referee to award a penalty kick.

Villanova outshot Temple eight to seven in the first half, maintaining possession for an extended time at the beginning of the contest. Temple responded by counterattacking, sending the ball down the field quickly the moment they intercepted a pass. Senior Owls midfielder Homero Rodriguez made multiple impressive skill moves when bringing the ball up the field. Once he was able to elude the pressure of two Villanova defenders by dragging the ball across his body from right to left with the tip of his right foot. Later in the half, as he was charging a backpedaling Wildcat, he deked right before rocketing left with full control of the ball.

The second half was faster, chippier, more aggressive. Temple took initiative early, challenging Fogarty multiple times. In the 53rd minute, on Temple’s second straight right corner kick, Owls junior defender Nolan Hemmer headed a ball cleanly on goal, but right at Fogarty. Fogarty made six saves on the day, and recorded his second shutout of the season.

The individual play of the game occurred late in the period, around the 80th minute, and it was made by Owls sophomore forward Chas Wilson. Wilson bolted down the right side and stopped on a dime to throw his defender. Coming back toward the top of the box, he unleashed a pretty left-footer that knuckled in the air and hit the crossbar near the far corner.

The Wildcats’ record now stands at 7-2-1, (0-0-1 Big East). Their next game is today, Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m., against St. John’s in Jamaica, Queens. Their next home game is Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 3:00 p.m. against Lafayette, which will be the team’s final nonconference game this season.

[Dylan, I know, there aren’t any quotes. Sacrilege, but I was in a rush.]

Earlier this year you could have accused me, rightly, of being a Brandon Belt apologist

Now Brandon Belt needs no apologist.

 

Off-day fun, 9/13 edition

Standings look different. That’s because I redesigned them for this new blog, which hasn’t gotten off the ground yet. Go to Midnight Baseball to read a scintillating recap of all the games on August 31 concerning AL and NL West teams. Blog never took off because we don’t have internet at my house and I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do with it. For example, I wanted to post the tables themselves, not just pictures of them as I do here. WordPress.com won’t let you do that unless you either, a) upgrade to WordPress Pro or, b) host on another, more lenient, site and use the WordPress.org software to help you design the interface and post as you would on WordPress.com. Today I was surprised by how much money was in my checking account, so I think I can afford the modest fee for hosting on another site. Now Comcast just needs to show up (they’ve blown my roommates and I off twice already) and give us some fucking internet.

The Giants are doing well. Look at this graph I’ve been keeping for the other site. It’s simple but helps one visualize the race since the start of September.

Padres have a real shot at second. They’ve been the second-best team since September. Chase Headley has over 100 RBI, how crazy is that?

Well this was more about me than baseball. Thanks for still coming here.

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 7: Say My Name

Gut: Todd writing down the steps of the cook = this; Seriously, though, why is Walt okay with that? What stops Todd from selling it or killing Walt once he masters it?; Jesse and Skyler had a moment and I smell romance. I just hope it doesn’t drag into a “will-they-or-won’t-they” rut, like early seasons of The Office; Looks like Mike ditched his granddaughter at the park, but at least her money is safe (I say this because I assume the lawyer would have no need to unlock her vault a second time, so the DEA wouldn’t know about it).

I will keep this brief because next week’s post will be mammoth and I don’t have much time before my first class. Hank’s stubborn persistence keeps paying off, and now the lawyer is turning on everybody. The DEA is pleased:

But the end, and specifically Walt’s shock and remorse, is all I really want to talk about; everything else has pretty distinct consequences.

Walt brings the Go Bag to Mike and thinks this merits something in return. Mike refuses to give up his guys and calls Walter on his bullshit. Walter shoots Mike. Why?

I’m still not sure. Perhaps Walt was dabbling in enhanced interrogation techniques, but Mike isn’t one to give in under pressure and Walt knows that. The only other motive I can think of is a bruised ego. Walter has viewed Mike as a subordinate the entire season, and Mike has not played along. Walt tried to assert control one last time but got the same result.

More interesting is the aftermath: Walt’s reaction.

I just realized Lydia knows all the names. I could have gotten them from her. I’m sorry, Mike…

Gail, Jane, Gus and the boy all needed to die in order for Walt to remain alive and free, but Mike didn’t. Is one “unnecessary” death all it takes for Walter to feel? Was he humbled by the knowledge he made a mistake? He listened to Mike, for once…

Shut the fuck up and let me die in peace.

Though to be fair, it was his last request, which carries more weight than every other type of command.

What effect will this have on Walter’s psyche is more intriguing than any other consequences. We already saw in the preview that Walter talks to Lydia, and we know that Todd has a prison uncle with connections. Those two pieces of information will probably be tied together neatly, but I have no idea how this murder will change Walt, if it does at all. He broke a rule of his by killing someone who didn’t need to die. Now that he’s crossed that line, who’s to say he won’t like it there, or want to stay?