Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Tour Hits The Home Stretch

It would seem that the Tour de France is basically a race for third place at this point. Alberto Cantador has basically sewn up his second overall win in three years, and Andy Schleck has basically claimed 2nd (as well as the white best-young-rider jersey). Thor Hushovd ended the chase for the green sprinters/points jersey. Franco Pellizotti has ended the climb for the polka dot king of the mountains jersey. And Astana has pretty much but the team time race to bed as well. And I am running away with my fantasy group on But any of five men could potentially fill that third place spot on the podium in Paris on Sunday.

Or is it all that cut and dry? As we have seen, the most innocent looking crashes can occur on the easiest of stages, and can knock major contenders out in an instant (Levi Leipheimer). Not to mention that there are serious dangers on these roads that can lead to horrific crashes that could shake up the standings (Jens Voigt - pictured). But aside from a crash ruining the fun in these last four stages, how safe are the jersey-wearers?

It appears that Cantador is a lock to win it all. He widened his overall gap to 2:26 on Wednesday and has shown that he has the legs (if not the strategic expertise or teamsmanship) to out do any man on the climbs. And while he isn't the absolute best time trialist and may lose a little time to a few men on Thursday, he is excellent in that discipline and has provided himself with a massive cushion regardless. Put it in the bank: Cantador wins.

Andy Schleck finds himself in 2nd overall and should not have any trouble hanging onto that position. His closest rival is his brother/teammate Frank (:59 behind him) so there is no cause for concern there. Behind Frank is Lance Armstrong who has shown that he does have the power to plow through these climbs, but keeps being left out on quick accelerations...which Andy Schleck does well if need be on Saturday on Mont Ventoux. Plus, he has 1:19 on Armstrong and 2:18 on Andreas Kloden (5th), and 2:27 on time trial threat Bradley Wiggins (6th).

Frank Schleck in third won't attack his own brother (more because he's a teammate than a brother probably) to try to move up into 2nd, but his hold on third in Paris is only tenuous. He has shown great strength and has ridden beautifully through the first 2+ weeks, but he holds just :30 on Lance Armstrong and that is not a strong position with a time trial and brutal mountain stage remaining. Kloden is 1:19 back and Wiggins is 1:28, and both of them are threats to move up as well. By comparison, in the stage 1 time trial in Monaco, Wiggins beat Frank Schleck by 1:19, and that course was not as well-suited to Wiggins' style as the one on Thursday is. The race for third could easily be divided by 10-15 seconds among five men as they take on Mont Ventoux on the last real stage of the Tour.

Thor Hushovd rode an inspired race in stage 17, both tactically and physically. With his small lead in the green jersey competition in peril with two potential field sprints remaining, and Mark Cavendish having shown that he cannot be beaten in such a competition, Hushovd simply took the sprints out of the equation by surging ahead on a Cat 1 climb and descent, catching and passing a breakaway full of pure climbers. He put up to 2:00 between himself and the nearest man, taking wins at both of stage 17's sprint checkpoints and even winning a climb during his solo breakaway (before sitting up and actually taking a Coke from his team car as he waited for the field to catch him, his job done).

Pellizotti likely ended the king of the mountains chase in stage 16 when he got into yet another breakaway (a daily occurrence for Pellizotti) and took maximum points over both of the day's climbs. Astana took over the team time lead in stage 15 before doubling their lead to just over two-and-a-half minutes in stage 16. They then added nearly 14 minutes to the lead in stage 17, no thanks to Cantador's inexplicable attack on the final climb that pre-empted a move planned for Kloden. Vincenzo Nibali has kept the race for the best young rider competition respectable (2:43 behind Schleck through stage 17), but he hasn't shown that he can keep up with Schleck, let alone take that much time away from him over these last few stages.

Looking ahead, Fabian Cancellara is a big favorite to win the time trial on Thursday, just as he did in stage 1 in Monaco. Cancellara is over an hour-and-a-half behind the leaders though and is of no concern. All eyes will be on Wiggins (6th overall) who was third in stage 1, losing 1 second to Cantador but beating each of his other rivals for the podium in Paris by as much as 80 seconds.

Stage 19 looks like a possible bunch sprint where the leaders will not bother to attack one another at all (just one Cat. 2 climb and two Cat. 4's.) and will rest on their time gains from the time trial. That sets up a potential classic on Saturday's penultimate stage with four moderate climbs culminating in the Highest Category climb to an uphill finish on Mont Ventoux. No lead is really safe on this climb as an agressive rider who is able to break away from the pack of leaders could easily take 2-3 minutes out of the group on that climb alone. And stage 21 will likely be Cantador's coronation through the streets of Paris as Cavendish bolts one last time for a stage win.

1. Alberto Cantador
2. Andy Schleck +2:26
3. Frank Schleck +3:25
4. Lance Armstrong +3:55
5. Andreas Kloden +4:44
6. Bradley Wiggins +4:53
7. Vincenzo Nibali +5:09

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tour De France Rest Day Recap II

Stages 1-9: Astana Dominating On The Roads And In The Papers
Lance Armstrong's Team Astana dominated the Tour de France in all senses for the first 10 days. They had four men in the top 6 through the first 9 stages, and were all the talk in between races because of the supposed fireworks going off within the team. Was there ever really any question whether Armstrong or Spaniard Alberto Cantador was the team leader or was it all conjecture by the media? Or did the Astana gand prop up the story to their competitors in the dark as to the team's plans? For the early part of the race, Armstrong and Cantador both looked like they had the form to win it all, and their team seemed bullerproof enough to send either man (and possibly two others) to the podium in Paris.

Stage 10: The Radios Weren't The Only Things Turned Off
The International Cycling Union is the sports governing body and in their infinite wisdom, they decided to experiment with not allowing managers to talk to riders during a race via radios during the most important event in the sport. It's kinda like if the NFL tried out a new rule where the sidelines couldn't give any hand signals to the players during the 2nd quarter of the Super Bowl. Yes, there are professional sports where coaches do not communicate with players and it can work fine (tennis), but why bother test it out here?

Stage 10 was to be the first of two stages that would be run without radios and 14 of the 20 teams signed a petition asking for the decision to be reversed. It wasn't and in a moderate show of protest, the riders simply took the day off. They rode the course, but the wild attacks and aggressive riding expected from the radio-free riders were nowhere to be found. It was a complete snoozer to the point where the UCI admitted their mistake and decided to allow the radios to be used in stage 13.

The one interesting thing that did happen was that as the peloton all cross the finish line in a giant pack, at one point there was a slight gap between two packs in the same group...maybe a half of a second's worth. In an amazingly arbitrary and unfair ruling, the race referee decided that this one-bike-length-gap constituted a break in the peloton and awarded different times to the two groups (everyone in a group at the finish gets the same time as the person in the front of the group to protect riders from over-aggressive riding among 100 or more riders piled up at the finish). This caught major contenders American Levi Leipheimer and Brit Bradley Wiggins out and they lost 15 seconds on the lead, dropping from 4th to 5th and from 5th to 7th, respectively. The ruling was quickly reversed the next day after all 20 teams complained and the referree decided to review the tape.

Stages 11-13: Green, Polka Dot Jerseys Change Hands; Yellow, White Stay Put
The battle for the green jersey (sprint points) Brit Mark Cavendish and Norwegian Thor Hushovd took center stage as the Tour traveled back down out of the Pyrenees and into the flat transitional stages in central France before they head back up into the Alps. American first-timer Tyler Farrar nearly outfoxed Cavenish at the line in stage 11, but Cavendish's kick proved too strong as he won his 3rd stage of the Tour. Hushovd finished 5th in the stage.

The flat stage didn't go completely as planned as Leipheimer went down in a seemingly innocent crash in the final 2 miles, but broke his wrist and was unable to start the next morning for stage 12. Besides his own ambitions, this is a tough blow for Armstrong, Cantador, and Astana, for whom Leipheimer is a great supporter. For those who were able to go in stage 12, it was a day for the breakaway as seven men survived in front of the peloton over the six category 3 and 4 climbs in this not-so-flat flat stage. Cavendish once again out-sprinted the pack to widen his yellow jersey lead and Team Saxo Bank took over the team-time lead thanks to Nikki Sorenson picking up almost six minutes on the peloton in his solo win.

Stage 13 might actually have been an explosive stage if the riders were not allowed radios like initially planned. With a category 1 climb, two Cat 2's, and 2 Cat 3's, it would have been unlikely for the peloton to servive together without the scouting that team cars provide. As it was, Astana continued to push the pace through (as they have for most of the Tour), but kept their cards close to the vest by not attacking. Saxo Bank made a quick attack on the Cat 1 up Col du Platzerwasel, but it was more of a heat-check than anything. Once the move was countered by basically every contender on ever team, Andy Schleck and Saxo Bank cooled back down and the peloton regathered for the final 40 miles-or-so.

Hushovd was able to get into a breakaway and finish 6th in stage 13. As it is quite unusual for a sprinter for go in in a break, he gained 15 points on Cavendish and took the green jersey. Italian Franco Pellizotti took over the king-of-the-mountains crown from Spaniard Egoi Martinez as well, but the team time lead stayed with Saxo Bank and the leaderboard remained unchanged once again (Italian Rinaldo Nocentini in yellow and German Tony Martin in white).

Stage 14: American Revolution
As seems to be the pattern for this Tour, what was supposed to be a run-off-the-mill flat stage wound up providing the most sparks of any stage perhaps in years. With only two moderate Cat 3 climbs, everyone knew there would be a breakaway and what remained to be seen was who would get into it and how much time the contending teams would allow them to gain. The breakaway went early and the biggest name in the bunch was the current patriarch of American cycling, George Hincapie (5:25 off the lead entering the stage) of the American team Columbia.

A little back-story: Hincapie was once the right hand man of Lance Armstrong on Discovery and U.S. Postal Service and helped deliver all seven of his Tour wins. His manager with those teams is Armstrong's manger currently with Astana. Hincapie is one of the most respected and well-liked riders by fans, the press, and other riders. His current team, Columbia, has something of a rivalrly with the other major American squad, Garmin. Hincapie is not a threat to contend for the next seven stages, so even if he were to make up all 5:25 and take over, it is no real concern to any of the general classification contenders.

As the breakaway's lead reached around four minutes, Team Astana took the reigns of the peloton, controlling the pace and allowing the breakaway to extend their lead, but at a controlled pace - not so much that they'd get away and Hincapie would wind up with a huge lead overall, but not so little that anyone else would be tempted to make their own attack. As the lead approached nine minutes, Astana peeled away from the front of the peloton and let AG2R make a last play to hang onto their man's yellow jersey. When it looked like AG2R would not have the firepower to get the breakaway back inside the gap needed to keep Nocentini in the overall lead, Garmin jumped in to help the pacemaking, essentially fighting for no reason to keep Hincapie out of the yellow jersey (in perhaps his last Tour de France)! Hincapie wound up finishing just 5 seconds short of the overall lead.

Later, Garmin team officials would say that it was a strategic move intended to protect the overall hopes of their men American Christian Vandevelde and Wiggins, but it is no secret that Hincapie will likely lose 20 minutes or more once they hit the Alps, so that argument doesn't hold water. Hincapie was extremely upset after the race, blaming his friends at Astana and fellow Americans at Garmin for taking the jersey away for no good reason, but ultimately Astana let Hincapie to stretch his lead out by five minutes while they were in charge of the pace-setting. Bruyneel actually went so far as to say that stretegically, they would have prefered Hincapie to take over yellow and have Columbia to have to defend it. Will Hincapie, Columbia, or anyone loyal to him take revenge on Garmin in later stages?

Stage 15: Cantador Puts The Controversy To Bed
When he made a bold attack on a climb early in the Tour and stole less than 20 seconds from Armstrong, we wondered if Cantador was feeling vulnerable and attacked to protect himself. We wondered if this would provoke Armstrong into finding that gear that seemingly only he has. We wondered if the move was really as dominant as it appeared of if the rest of the contenders had let it go since it was so late in the day and so early in the Tour, they wouldn't lose much time anyway. Cantador answered all those questions, and all the ones about who was the Astana leader with an absolutly dominant charge up the first Cat 1 Alps climb of the Tour.

Asked about their strategy on this first Alpine stage, Armstrong and Bruyneel both joked before the stage that we would see something special that day. "We have a little plan," Bruyneel said with a smile. It seems now that Astana knew all along that Cantador was the stronger man, but they dangled Armstrong, with his fearsome reputation and massive media appeal, in front of the rest of the field as a distraction. When the time came, Armstrong fought off attacks from Saxo Bank and Garmin before seemingly telling Cantador it was time to go, and boy did he go!

Like a canon shot, Cantador put a gap between himself and his chief rivals so fast that even the explosive climbing legs of Andy Schleck couldn't keep up. Cantador blew through the straggling breakway riders on the climb up Verbier in Switzerland and launched himself right onto the top step of the podium in Paris next week. In the end, he stole away the yellow jersey, and gained 43 seconds on Schleck, who finished second, as the standings were completely rewritten. Armstrong looked beaten as he struggled to remain in contact up the final climb but was able to move up into 2nd place overall, with Wiggins, teammate Andreas Kloden, and Schleck now breathing down his neck. And while he missed the initial charge up the final climb and found himself in a huge defecit, defending champion Carlos Sastre finished the climb faster than even Cantador and is something of a dark-horse podium threat in 11th place.

As for the jerseys, in the end Astana assumed control of the team time lead; Cantador of course took yellow; Hushovd snuck back into green; Andy Schleck took over in white; Pellizotti remained in polka dots.

1. CONTADOR Alberto (Spain), Team Astana
2. ARMSTRONG Lance (USA), Team Astana, +01' 37"
3. WIGGINS Bradley (UK), Garmin - Slipstream, +01' 46"
4. KLÖDEN Andréas (Germany), Team Astana, +02' 17"
5. SCHLECK Andy (Luxembourg), Team Saxo Bank, +02' 26"
6. NOCENTINI Rinaldo (Italy), AG2R-La Mondiale, +02' 30"
7. NIBALI Vincenzo (Italy), Liquigas, +02' 51"
8. MARTIN Tony (Germany), Team Columbia-HTC, +03' 07"
9. LE MEVEL Christophe (France), Francaise Des Jeux, +03' 09"
10. SCHLECK Frank (Luxembourg), Team Saxo Bank, +03' 25"

Other Notables
11. SASTRE Carlos (Spain), Cervelo Test Team, +03' 52"
12. VANDEVELDE Christian (USA), Garmin-Slipstream, +03' 59"
13. HINCAPIE George (USA), Team Columbia-HTC, +04' 05"
14. EVANS Cadel (Australia), Silence-Lotto, +04' 27"
29. MENCHOV Denis (Russia), Rabobank, +11' 23"

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tour De France Rest Day Recap

Stages 1-3
As expected, Fabian Cancellara won the stage 1 individual time trial and his Saxo Bank squad worked to protect his overall lead for the first few stages, and stage 2 ended with a bunch sprint won by the world's best sprinter, Mark Cavendish. None of the major contenders had stuck their necks out and were content to wait to the high mountains before testing their opponents. Stage 3 saw a bit of a shake-up as the peloton got split in two on a windy day along the Mediterranean, with only Lance Armstrong finding a place in the front half of the split among the contenders. Armstrong vaulted from 10th to 2nd overall, with teammate and Tour favorite Alberto Cantador just 19 seconds back in third place. Cavendish won the sprint finish in stage 3 as well.

Stage 4 - Team Time Trial
While the yellow jersey is awarded to the individual with the fastest overall time, he cannot win it without the support of his team. This idea was never more evident than in stage 4 when Cadel Evans dropped to 2:59 behind the leaders and 35th place overall because his team was not strong enough to keep pace with the top teams. Evans' hopes for a Tour victory all-but vanished just four days in, and before they even got a glimpse of their first mountain. Other contenders, such as Denis Menchov (crashed - 72nd +3:52), defending champion Carlos Sastre (29th +2:44), and Andy Schleck (20th +1:44) lost huge chunks of time as Team Astana (pictured) rolled to top times at each time check, including the finish.
Garmin-Slipstream had the best race of the day, going out so fast that they dropped four of their nine teammates around 1/3 of the way through the course. With only five remaining riders in a race against the clock that doesn't stop until your fifth rider crosses the finish line, Garmin gained time on every other team in the field but Astana, vaulting Brits Bradley Wiggins and David Millar into 6th and 10th, and Americans David Zabriskie and Christian Vandevelde into 9th and 12th overall.
Astana mopped up on the field, placing riders in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, and 11th in the overall standings and pulling Armstrong into a virtual tie with Cancellara for the overall lead (Cancellara held on by 22 hundredths-of-a-second after 10 hours, 38 minutes of racing).
Stages 5-6: No Change At The Top
With so many riders losing so much time in the team time trial, and with the Pyrenees looming in stage 7, this was the last chance for many riders to steal a few minutes from the leaders by getting into breakaways. The expression goes that the no one wins the Tour de France in the early stages, but they can lose it. So the big contenders were content to let the breakaways go and to only chase them down when the gaps got big enough to shake up the top of the leader board.
The field let Aussie David Millar go in stage 5 and after escaping a breakaway pack with about 15 miles remaining; he actually extended his lead on the field while riding solo. Millar started the day just 1:07 behind the yellow jersey, so eventually the peloton took notice of his attack and slowed reeled him in before finally catching him with only a little over .5 mile remaining. This was the first day that the Tour fought through rain and it played a huge role, with many crashes slowing the field down allowing Millar to escape in the first place.
Frenchman Thomas Voeckler (pictured) was able to do in stage 7 what Millar had been unable to do to stage 6. Voeckler got into a breakaway group early on and finally went solo. Voeckler started the day nearly 7 minutes behind Cancellara for the yellow jersey, so the chase was not as intense and he lived to win the stage, holding off the peloton by just :07.
Stage 7: Let The Games Begin
The press had been making news of the supposed rift among the members of Team Astana for months: who would the team support, Armstrong or Cantador? The riders themselves had been saying all the right things: it was Cantador's team to lose, Armstrong is a great champion, we are all professionals and there is no rift, etc. On the roads, the team seemed unified as well. Where was this rift? Armstrong had quietly moved ahead of Cantador three days earlier in a lucky break and there had been no change among the other leaders in four days, but this year's longest stage, stage 7, would take the Tour to its third highest peak ever, finishing at the top of Arcalis in Andorra - it would be a the perfect chance for the Astana battle to go up a notch, and for forgotten contenders to make some noise.
For the first time, Cancellara faltered, falling from the top spot as Team Astana ruthlessly pushed the pace for nearly the entire stage 7, taking the wind out of the sails of any possible attackers. When Schleck or Evans or Sastre moved to the front of the peloton, Armstrong, Cantador, Levi Leipheimer, and Andreas Kloden were quick to defend their team's dominant position. Finally Cantador was the one to make a successful attack, surging away from the pack in the stage's final mile. While it looked like Armstrong could have answered and kept with him, he instead stayed back and to force his rivals to go after his teammate's surprise move - he wouldn't do the work for them.
Armstrong surrendered 21 seconds to his teammate, dropping to third behind new leader Rinaldo Nocentini (who had survived in a breakaway to take the overall lead by 6 seconds, pictured) and Cantador (who now led Armstrong by 2 seconds). Cantador had broken many unwritten rules of conduct by attacking his own teammates who had been doing the pace-setting. According to teammate Leipheimer, the surprise move was Cantador's own idea, and not part of the team strategy. Armstrong, always the professional, had supported his surging teammate on the road by fighting off attackers for him, and afterwards would not bite at probing questions about the team's mindset.
Stage 8-9: Here Come The Contenders
After Cantador's sudden bolt into the lead of Astana, the team insisted that there were no problems in the clubhouse, so to speak. Armstrong said, "Even if there were some hurt feelings, we're gonna do out job. We're all professionals." After a team meeting before stage 8, Astana manager Johan Bruyneel said that he had addressed Cantador's move and that there was some tension but that they'd do their jobs. Reading between the lines, it wasn't clear who the team supported (Cantador who seemed to have the better legs, or Armstrong who seemed to be in the right), but it was clear that there was officially a problem with the team.
With Astana suddenly in apparent turmoil, it seemed that the remaining two day in the Pyrenees would be filled with attacks from contenders, even if it was earlier in the Tour than most had probably planned to make any moves. Evans made an early move in stage 8 to get into a breakaway along with a few other big names (Zabriskie, Vladimir Efimkin, Thor Hushovd, George Hincapie, Cancellara, Juan Antonio Flecha, and Egoi Martinez), but Astana refused to let them go until Evans dropped out of the pack. He did, and off they went. Schleck attacked on the final climb of the day but was quickly answered by Armstrong and Astana.
Eventually, a select group of 11 riders (Armstrong, Cantador, Schleck, Frank Schleck, Evans, Kloden, Wiggins, Vandevelde, Sastre, Leipheimer, and Menchov) climbed away from the peloton and caught the breakaway. Having established their strength, the leaders allowed the yellow jersey and peloton to catch back up and finished together after a long descent.
Stage 9 shaped up nearly identically, with a long descent late, allowing the field to reassemble after separating out in the early climbs. Armstrong led Astana in running down dangerous early moves as they neared the climb up Col du Tourmalet (the 4th highest peak in Tour history) which is a 10.6 mile Highest Category climb up to 6939 ft. AG2R set the pace in protecting the yellow jersey of their man, Nocentini, and there were no major moves from any of the main contenders as they all finished with the same time once again.
Stage 10: A Hush Falls Over The Crowd
The Tour de France has decided to not allow teams to use radio communication between team cars and riders in stages 10 and 13, a decision that hasn't been well received among all the teams and riders. Supposedly Bruyneel has a petition signed by at least 14 of the 20 teams asking for the radios to be allowed or they will boycott the stages. Garmin's manager Matt White says that having no radio is not that big an issue in reality because their use is relatively new anyway. Garmin was one of the teams that did not sign the petition.
Assuming the stage goes off as planned, and assuming there is any attacking whatsoever, look for veteran riders who may have raced in the days before radios to take advantage of younger men. It is a flat stage and should not cause any shake-up of the contenders, but the radio-situation could be quite a wild-card. It is also Bastille Day so a betting man would be wise to put money on a Frenchman (Voeckler in particular) to make a breakaway for the stage win.
Stages 10-15 are all relatively flat stages and there is not likely to be much change in the leader board, nor much news from the Astana camp until at least when they hit the Alps in stage 16.
1. NOCENTINI Rinaldo (Italy), AG2R-La Mondiale, 34h 24' 21"
2. CONTADOR Alberto (Spain), Astana, + 00' 06"
3. ARMSTRONG Lance (USA), Astana, + 00' 08"
4. LEIPHEIMER Levi (USA), Astana, + 00' 39"
5. WIGGINS Bradley (UK), Garmin-Slipstream, + 00' 46"
6. KLÖDEN Andréas (Germany), Astana, + 00' 54"
7. MARTIN Tony (Germany), Team Columbia - HTC, + 01' 00"
8. VANDEVELDE Christian (USA), Garmin-Slipstream, + 01' 24"
9. SCHLECK Andy (Luxembourg), Saxo Bank, + 01' 49"
10. NIBALI Vincenzo (Italy), Liquigas, + 01' 54"
Other Notables
13. SCHLECK Frank (Luxembourg), Saxo Bank, + 02' 25"
16. SASTRE Carlos (Spain), Cervelo, + 02' 52"
18. EVANS Cadel (Australia), Silence-Lotto, + 03' 07"
27. MENCHOV Denis (Russia), Rabobank, + 05' 02"
28. HINCAPIE George (USA), Team Columbia - HTC, + 05' 25"
69. ZABRISKIE David (USA), Garmin-Slipstream, + 29' 50"

Monday, July 6, 2009

Lance Is Poised To Take Over Tour Lead

The first two stages of the Tour de France seemed to go just according to plan for most teams. Astana had four men in the top 10 overall, with Alberto Cantador planted firmly as their leader. Fabian Cancellara had out-descended the field on the roads back down into Monaco and taken hold of the yellow jersey after the stage 1 individual time trial. Columbia had set up their slingshot and fired Mark Cavendish to the stage win in a bunch sprint in stage 2. All of the major players (Cantador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, etc.) were among the elite on the overall list, and none had suffered any setbacks in the crashes on the first day on the open roads. Stage 1 saw the time trialists shine. Stage 2 saw the sprinters gets their shots. No surprises.

It was so predictable that Astana's team manager Johan Bruyneel basically decided before the race in what position his big four would finish overall. Armstrong took the course before the others and claimed the top overall time. Next came Leipheimer who bettered him by a few seconds and took over the overall lead. Next was Andreas Kloden who did the same. And finally Cantador took his place at the top of the Astana ladder, in second place overall - close enough to strike, but without having the wear a yellow target on his back for the next 20 races.

Stage 3 looked like it would work out according to plan as well - another long, flat, hot stage in the south of France where the sprinters would fight it out in the end, but no time would be gained or lost by the leaders. The flat stretch that finished the stage would keep the pace fast but comfortable, and the relatively straight run in to the finish would keep everyone upright. We'd have to wait for Tuesday's team time trial and the mountain stages to come for any shake-ups among the leaders.

Team Columbia began setting up their catch of the four breakaway riders by trading off who would push the pace at the front, protecting Mark Cavendish who would be led in to the final kilometer to bolt out for the stage win. It was all so ordinary.

Then the wind kicked up.

In the blink of an eye, Columbia's pace setting suddenly broke the peloton into pieces as they fought a cross-wind. But certainly the major contenders would either notice the break and get into it, or realize it was not a threat and let it go. Certainly Astana or Saxo Bank would not let any contenders sneak away. Certainly Quick Step or Garmin would not let Columbia's Cavendish get too easy of a sprint win. Right?

Within moments, the entire 9-man Columbia team, including Cavendish and overall contenders Tony Martin, Kim Kirchen and Michael Rogers, had broken the race open. Lance Armstrong was the only serious contender not on Columbia to make it into the break (along with two teammates). Saxo Bank couldn't lead the charge to reel them in because even though their man Andy Schleck was left out, Cancellara had made the break and they didn't want to attack their own teammate. Neither could Astana, choosing to let Armstrong get time back on many of his rivals, but possibly creating more problems down the line as Armstrong pulled himself ahead of team leader Cantador by the end.

One predictable thing eventually happened: Cavendish out-sprinted the field for the win (the sprinters had been thinned down to really just him and Thor Hushovd). The top two overall spots remained in Cancellara's and Martin's grasps, but Armstrong had leap-frogged six men up to 3rd place, Cantador now 19 second behind him. Linus Gerdemann and Maxime Montfort jumped into 7th and 9th, respectively, and Levi Leipheimer dropped to 10th, now 1:11 back of the lead.

Thus far the race is being dominated by Germans (2nd, 6th, 7th) and Americans (3rd, 10th, 13th, 17th), with Astana still leading the team-time competition (also in 3rd, 4th, 6th and 10th overall) and Columbia close on their heels (1:46 back with men in 2nd, 9th, 11th, and 13th). Cancellara still leads overall over Martin (:33) and Armstrong (:40). Martin leads the best young rider classification, and Cavendish appears to be running away with the points classification.

Tuesday is the team time trial, and as I wrote last week, afterwards the yellow jersey will likely be worn by a major contender. Columbia needs to gain 33 seconds on Saxo Bank to put Martin in yellow. Astana needs to gain 40 seconds on Saxo Bank and just 7 seconds on Columbia for Armstrong to be back in yellow once again, which will certainly ramp up the controversy about who that team is supporting (though we only seem to see or hear that controversy in the media, not among the riders themselves).

Silence Lotto could see Evans take over the lead if there is a major shake-up, but Astana and Armstrong are by far the most likely to take over if Saxo Bank and Cancellara are going to drop from the top spot.

Andy Roddick Learns That Nobody's Perfect

Last year's Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal Wimbledon final is talked about as being the greatest tennis match of all time - at least perhaps the greatest Grand Slam final. It is one of those events where people can tell you where they were when it was happening. I was packing up in a hotel room waiting to check out. I called the front desk twice to push back my check out time because the rain-delayed match seemingly would not end, as momentum swung back and forth between the two giants until Nadal finally wore Federer down in extra games in the fifth set (9-7).

But this year's final between Andy Roddick and Federer was completely different, and entirely better. After Roddick suddenly transformed himself into a shot-maker just in time to ruin the Andy Murray-party in England, he then nearly ruined Federer's coronation on Sunday as well. Where last year's match was a competition to find out which seemingly crucial error would eventually cost one man or the other, this year's match a competition to see who would finally make a mistake. And the first time Roddick did he lost.

It was the most perfectly played tennis I have ever seen. Once they reached the do-or-die point at 6-6 in the fifth set, each man just stopped missing (not that they had done much of it all day anyway). Neither even really looked tired through it all. And at 8-8, when Roddick had two break points against Federer's serve, and it finally looked as though one of the two had finally blinked, Federer simply starting hitting every serve so perfectly that Roddick hardly even flinched at most of them from then on. He had 50 aces in the match and it seemed half of them were in the fifth set.

From that point, 8-8 in the fifth, they then played an entire extra set toe-to-toe, with each man out-doing the other on his serve until finally at 15-14, Roddick was finally broken. For the first time all day. In sports, we throw the term "heart-breaker" around a lot, but that term should be retired after this one. You always feel for the loser in a final (unless you just don't like them of course), but this was somehow different than normal. The fact that Roddick had to take home the second-place trophy was somehow like an insult in this case. That a player who makes one mistake all day doesn't get to be called champion is just cruel.

Before this tournament, when Nadal dropped out, there was some talk that this would be an all-too-easy run for the all-time Grand Slam winner title for Federer. Novak Djokovic can't seem to get over the hump. Roddick didn't have the game to rival Federer. Perhaps Murray could ride the home-town fans to a miracle win. But it was always Federer's to win just like the French Open was last month once Nadal went out. And in the end Federer did win, but Roddick made sure that he had earned it and made sure that for his 15th Grand Slam title, perhaps we finally got to see a genuinely joyful celebration from the coolest killer in the game.


And through over five hours of tennis, through 77 games played, not a single screech was heard on a single shot (even the ones at 130 mile-an-hour or faster). But when the match ended and NBC aired the taped-delayed women's doubles final, they made up for all those hundreds (thousands?) of silent, powerful shots with a constant stream of cacophonous screeching and screaming (even on flat-footed volleys). And of course it was on tape, because this was NBC-Wimbledon coverage, after all.

Friday, July 3, 2009

July 4 Weekend Sports Highlights

  • Mets vs. Phillies in Philadelphia (Fox at 1:05 - Saturday)
  • All Williams-Final at Wimbledon - Saturday (again they're playing in the women's draw, which seems unfair)
  • Williams Brothers in the Wimbledon Women's Doubles Final as well
  • Andy Roddick vs. Roger Federer in Wimbledon Men's Final - Sunday
  • Tour de France Stage 1 Time Trial in Monaco - Sunday
  • NBA personnel carousel continues to spin (Allen Iverson is so desperate he actually said he wants to go to Memphis, poor bastard)
  • Petco Park was invaded Thursday by a swarm of bees (apparently all attracted to a ball girl's jacket, about which the jacket company released this statement, "We can only guess that bees are attracted, as major league players are, to the warmth and comfort of our performance apparel."). This weekend it will be invaded by a swarm of thugs.
  • Manny Ramirez returns to the Dodgers against the Padres, as exuberant Dodger fans completely forget that they ripped Giants fans for supporting Barry Bonds when he did the same thing Manny did, only it wasn't banned then...why is it that everyone else connected to steroids becomes a pariah for fans and media, but Manny is so beloved and forgiven? What did he do differently in the wake of his story breaking - or is it just that L.A. fans will get behind a winner no matter how bad a guy he is (not that I am talking about Kobe Bryant or anything)?
  • O's at Angels (12:35 - Sunday, but this is only on the list because I am going)
  • Russ Branyan's homer at Yankee Launching Pad Thursday should drop out of orbit and land again sometime Saturday
  • Drunken pickup ultimate at the Rose Bowl all day Saturday

Mr. Decker vs. Cptn. Fist Pump Live In Japanese

After doing a little searching, I found a website that streams live sports from all over the world and watched the fantastic Roddick-Murray match live (on some Japanese site), listening to the British internet-radio call on, but I was shocked this morning to find out that the Wimbledon men's semifinals did not air live in the U.S. Even with an American playing, and the match only starting around 7:45 a.m. Pacific time, they still tape delayed it on NBC till noon. Thank God for the internet.

I won't spoil the match yet in case someone reads this before the match airs (as though anyone is reading it anyway), but Captain Fist Pump lived up to his nickname. The two big trends in tennis over the last few years have been these awkward, tight-to-the-chest fist pumps that seemingly every woman and Andy Murray do on every single point won, and of course the Seles-screams on almost every woman's shot.

If Andy Roddick can serve the ball at 140 miles per hour without screeching, I think Maria Sharapova can figure out a way to hit a volley without it as well. This screeching brings up the obvious question: what is the most annoying sound in sports - tennis screeches or the steady two-hour droning, swarm-of-bees sound at soccer games? Or a Yankees fan?

I was certainly biased towards Roddick in this match because he is American and given that 233 years ago they were starting to sign the Declaration of Independence, in my eyes Murray may as well have been wearing a red jacket and standing at the baseline with a musket, but it seems to me that Roddick winning is just good for the world because if he's playing then there will be more shots of Brooklyn Decker in the stands on Sunday. And any shots of Brooklyn Decker are just good for humanity.

I was impressed with the improvement in Elena Dementieva's serve in this Wimbledon, but I think her improvement there may pale in comparison to the overall improvement of Roddick's game. Previously Dementieva's second serve was perhaps the most glaring hole in a crucial element of any game by any truly elite athlete in the world. And Roddick was basically just an ace-or-nothing type player. But both of them have completely transformed their weaknesses and become much better overall players.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

2009 Tour de France For Dummies

The 2009 Tour de France starts Saturday, July 4 in Monaco and in anticipation of this spectacular event, here is a two part explanation of the race, the riders, and the storylines to watch for over the next three-and-a-half weeks.

-Storylines to Watch-
Lance is Back American Lance Armstrong retired from professional cycling in 2005 after winning an unprecedented seven Tours de France in-a-row. In order to bolster his Livestrong campaign against cancer, last year he decided to come out of retirement and raise the profile of both his crusade, and of the sports of cycling...and possibly take home some hardware in the process. Armstrong joined powerhouse Team Astana which already boasted the world's best current stage racer (Alberto Cantador) and America's best rider (Levi Leipheimer) as well. After recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in a crash earlier this year, Armstrong is back in good form and it a contender for the overall title as long as he shows he is the strongest of his teammates and can win their support.

Former Greats Fall Short of Redemption Once upon a time, Ivan Basso was the chief rival to Armstrong and Jan Ulrich. After receiving a two-year ban for admitting that he had been planning to blood dope (did you read that Bud Selig?), he returned this year and joined Liquigas but was not chosen as one of their Tour de France riders this year. American Floyd Landis was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for allegedly doping. Landis had a hip replaced, served out his two-year ban, and returned early this season as well. But he was unable to land a spot on a premier team and his California-based Ouch! Racing failed to be selected for this Tour. Former American national champ and Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton decided to retire when caught using steroids and was then hit with an eight-year ban since he'd already served a two-year ban for blood doping (which he denies). Sprinter Tom Boonen was booted from this Tour after a third positive cocaine test outside of the racing season. (Update: Boonen was reinstated the day before the Tour started and is riding for Quickstep). Another former Armstrong-rival, Alexander Vinokourov, retired when he got a one-year ban when caught blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France. After deciding to unretire, his case was reopened and he was ordered to serve out the standard two-year ban, so he will also miss the 2009 Tour. Vino's doping in 2007 was a key reason for Team Astana not being invited to the 2008 Tour, keeping returning champ Cantador out of the race at no fault of his own.

Course Favors Climbers Armstrong stated that this year's course offers a great advantage to climbers which makes for wonderful theater as the racers turn themselves inside out trying to summit Alpine and Pyranean peaks in the quest for their sports' greatest glory.

As Long As They Don't All Kill Eachother... Team Astana features three of the races top names, and top contenders for the overall title. Their loyalty to their teammates and their respect for the sport's traditions will be tested as two of them will be forced to swallow their pride to carry their teammate to victory. But which one?

More Reasons For The French To Hate Us As if having the all-time greatest Tour de France rider being an ugly American wasn't bad enough, now he's back and they just can't seem to pin any cheating on him! And now there are as many of five Americans with decent chances to win it all - Armstrong, Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, Christian Vandevelde, and Danny Pate. For the second straight year, there are also two American teams as well - Garmin-Slipstream, and Columbia-High Road.

Radio Silence For the first time in decades, riders will compete in two stages (10 and 13) without the benefit of radio communication with team managers in chase cars with GPS information, time gaps, etc. Look for veteran riders to try and take advantage, particularly on the hilly stage 13, where small pockets of riders or indivuduals could easily slip away from the peleton if their don't have their head count right. The wiley Jens Voigt is a common favorite to make a bold move under these circumstances, which may be exactly why he doesn't bother.

What's With The Polka Dots? Six awards are given out at the Tour de France: The Yellow jersey is awarded daily to the overall leader (based on total time) - also known as the General Classification or GC. The Green jersey is awarded daily to the overall leader in sprint points (each stage has a few checkpoints where points are awarded to the first three riders to cross, as well as at the finish line) - also known as the Points Classification. The Polka Dot jersey is awarded daily to the overall top climber (points are awarded at the summits of each climb - the higher the climb and the later in a stage it occurs, the more points are awarded) - also known as the King of the Mountains Classification. The White jersey is awarded daily to the overall leader who is 25-years-old or younger - also known as the Best Young Rider Classification. The team with the fastest overall time at the end of the Tour wins the Team Time title - times are counted by adding up the times of the three fastest team members each day. And a Most Aggressive Rider jersey is awarded daily based on the previous day's stage (signified by white numbers on red, as opposed to black numbers on white like all other riders).

The Rundown This 96th Tour has 21 stages and covers approximately 2200 miles of road through six countries (Monaco, France, Spain, Andorra, Switzerland, and Italy), with two rest days. It runs from July 4th to July 26th. There are 10 flat stages, eight mountain stages, two individual time trials, and a team time trial. Three stages finish on the summits of climbs. There are 20 Highest Category ("HC"), Category 1, or 2 climbs, with the highest point reached being the summit of Col de Grand-Saint Bernard at 8113 feet during Stage 16. Climbs are categorized based on difficulty, as determined by the steepness (grade) and length of a climb.

-Riders To Watch-
Alberto Cantador (Spain) - Team Astana Generally considered the best stage race cyclist in the world, Cantador is the odds-on favorite. He has won every Grand Tour (like golf's Majors and tennis' Grand Slams) he has entered since winning the '07 Tour de France, and is riding very well right now. He will need to show his dominance early on to prove that he is the man to support for his Astana teammates and management. Cycling teams are designed to have a leader that gets protected by the other eight riders. Generally, they know going in who they will support and while Cantador is considered the strongest rider, the team almost has to be a little split considering who else is in the Astana stable.

Lance Armstrong (USA) - Team Astana While not a prohibitive favorite like he was the last few times he was in the Tour, Armstrong is on the short list of riders with a very good chance to win it all. If Cantador falters, crashes, or Armstrong comes out in completely dominating fashion early on, he could wrest control of the team away from Cantador. This could end in an unprecedented eighth Tour win, or it could shatter the team into pieces, costing them more than just the general classification title as well as shots at the other titles (and huge pay-days). Armstrong is a fan favorite and is a close friend and ally of team manager Johan Bruyneel, but this is Cantador's team (and Tour) to lose.

Andy Schleck (Luxembourg) - Team Saxo Bank Last year's Young Rider champion, the younger Schleck brother is still only 24 but is a serious threat for the GC title this year if he can keep himself from having that one bad day that knocks him out of it. Like Cantador and Armstrong, he is an exceptional climber and time trialist, and he has a deep team that can help protect him (particularly with older brother Frank, Voigt, and Fabian Cancellara).

Carlos Sastre (Spain) - Cervelo Test Team The 2008 Tour was considered a weaker field due to some doping suspensions and the organizers holding Astana out, and Sastre's win is considered a bit flukey due to his perhaps lucky timing on the ride up Alpe d' Huez. But a Tour de France champion he is, and he will be wearing #1 on his hip no matter what the critics might say. Sastre jumped ship from CSC-Saxo Bank to take the helm at the new Cervelo team and while that eliminates the competition at the top of the team, it also eliminates the protection he felt at the helm of such a deep squad.

Cadel Evans (Australia) - Silence-Lotto Evans has clearly been the most consistent rider in the Tour de France in Armstrong's absense, but doesn't have any hardware to show for it. Since his first Tour in 2005 when he finished 8th, he improved in 2006 to 5th, and was the runner up in 2007 and 2008 by under a minute each time. Evans' team is not as strong as Astana or Saxo Bank but he does have Sebastian Lang and Johan Van Summeren to support him (if Van Summeren isn't the leader).

Denis Menchov (Russia) - Rabobank Menchov is often considered not an overall favorite at the Tour because he is unspectacular...he isn't the best in any one discipline. But he just dominated the Giro d'Italia against most of the same field using his steady, solid style. He may not dominate, but he can certainly hang around long enough to win.

Levi Leipheimer (USA) - Team Astana The forgotten star on the three headed monster that is Astana, Leipheimer has taken a backseat to the dominance of Cantador and the notoriety of Armstrong, but this team could just as easily be his depending perhaps on how things go in stage 1 and stage 7. Leipheimer is also an exceptional time trialist and can hang with many of the best climbers, though isn't considered an elite climber himself.

Mark Cavendish (UK) - Columbia-High Road With his absoluletly dominant sprint speed, his expectation of finishing the Tour (somewhat unusual for sprinters), and the absense of Boonen, Cavendish has a very good chance of topping his 2008 Tour performance where he won 4 stages. Cavendish's sprinting is so dominant and his climbing is so adequate that he is even a distant contender for GC (very, very distant). He'd likely be happier wearing Green in Paris anyway, and seeing teammates Michael Rogers or Kim Kirchen in Yellow anyway.

Alejandro Valverde (Spain) - Caisse d-Epargne Banned. The Italian Olympic committee banned this team leader and GC favorite from competing in Italy and since the Tour goes onto Italian soil in stage 16, Valverde is out. He placed in the top 10 in GC for the last two Tours.

Christian Vandevelde (USA) - Garmin-Slipstream 2008 Yellow jersey 5th place
Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg) - Columbia-High Road 2008 Yellow jersey 8th place
David Zabriskie (USA) - Garmin-Slipstream 2009 US National Champion
David Moncoutie (France) - Confidis Le Credit En Ligne Great climber, top French hope
Oscar Freire (Spain) - Rabobank 2008 Green jersey winner
Thor Hushovd (Norway) - Cervelo Test Team 2008 Green jersey runner up
Danny Pate (USA) - Garmin-Slipstream Distant GC hopeful
Tyler Farrar (USA) - Garmin-Slipstream Top American sprinter, one of Cavendish's biggest threats
George Hincapie (USA) - Columbia-High Road Top support for Rogers/Kirchen, an all-time great American cyclist
Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) - Team Saxo Bank A master time trialist, he will likely go for the yellow jersey in stage 1 and try and hold it until teammates Andy or Frank Schleck take it from him in the mountains

-Stages To Watch-
July 4 - Stage 1 An unusually difficult 9.6 mile time trial through the streets of Monaco. Typically the overall contenders do not stick their necks out early in the Tour, but they won't be allowed to play this course too conservatively. General classification riders and time trialists to watch: Armstrong, Menchov, Cantador, Leipheimer, Cancellara, Bradly Wiggins.

July 7 - Stage 4 Team time trials are not seen each year in the Tour de France and offer a huge advantage to the deeper teams (like Astana, Silence-Lotto, and Saxobank). This 24.2 mile team time trial could easily push one of the big teams' GC contenders into Yellow early on in the Tour.

July 10 - Stage 7 At 139.2 miles, this is the longest stage in the 2009 Tour and features a mountaintop finish. This course layout could very likely force the contenders to come out of the protection of their teammates and battle it out, which is unusual in the Tour's first week. Look for teams with undetermined leadership (Astana) to fall in line behind the strongest man after this one.

July 12 - Stage 9 This stage is seemingly built for a breakaway, which is music to Saxo Bank's Voigt's ears. At 99.7 miles, the bruising mountain stage takes the riders over the famous Col d'Aspin and the Tourmalet, which Armstrong has called the Tour's toughest climb. Given that the first rest day is the next day, this is the perfect time for non-GC contenders (particularly a Frenchman who would then be in Yellow for Bastille Day) to make a run at a huge breakaway to steal a few minutes and possibly the Yellow jersey for a few days.

July 14 - Stage 10 Bastille Day at the Tour de France is always a day when the French riders go for national glory, and with this being the first of two stages where riders will not have radio communications with their managers in team cars, this could be a wild stage. The 120.8 mile course is flat though, and the GC men will likely not make any bold moves.

July 21 - Stage 16 Two massive climbs makes this alpine stage a possible back-breaker for those in the overall competition. It is likely too early for anyone to win the Tour, but it is just in time for a someone to lose it with a bad ride. The course is 99.4 miles and goes over the longest and highest climb of this Tour, the HC Col de Grand Saint-Bernard, and then deceptively named Cat 1 "Petit" Saint Bernard.

July 22 - Stage 17 After yesterday's monster climbs, this one will truly punish anyone who doesn't like climbing. 105 miles over 5 categorized climbs and a heartstopping downhill finish will likely end a few sprinters' Tours, as well as the hopes of many GC men. As the peleton is whittled down, the strongest teams will come to the forefront now. The leaders on teams that are still in tact will have a huge advantage down the stretch.

July 23 - Stage 18 With no time to rest after surviving some killer climbs in the Alps, the riders head to the second individual time trial. If the overall title is close, this time trial could go a long way to opening gaps on riders who don't time trial well. It could also further gum up the works if any teams are still in a fight for leadership.

July 25 - Stage 20 Typically the second-to-last stage is an individual time trial, but this year's Tour has held a special treat for that all-important penultimate day. Never before has the Tour held a mountain stage on the final stage before Paris and this is no ordinary mountain! A 103.8 mile epic over five categorized climbs, culminating in the crushing 13.1 mile assent of the HC moonscape of Mont Ventoux, one of the toughest climbs in the world. For one 9-mile stretch, the grade is 9%.

One of Armstrong's most famous Tour de France moments came in 2000 when he made a stunning attack on Mont Ventoux, destroying the field before eventually giving the stage win to Marco Pantani as a tribute for Pantani's comeback. When Pantani later said he was offended that Armstrong gave him the stage win, Armstrong said, "I learned a lesson that day. No more gifts."

July 26 - Stage 21 This 101.9 mile coronation almost never plays a role in determining the Yellow jersey winner, but can help determine who winds up in Green (depending on which sprinters have survived the mountains). Cavendish, Hushovd, and Freire will likely still be battling it out. The final laps through the streets of Paris serve more as a parade than a race in most years and the climb of Mont Ventoux will likely have separated the field enough that whomever is in Yellow when they start the day will be sipping champagne on the Champs Elysees as they finish it.

No surprises here: Cantador in Yellow with Menchov and Andy Schleck on the podium with him, Cavendish in Green, Andy Schleck in White (and as King of the Mountains), Astana wins the Team Time battle

The race is aired live on Versus each day starting in the early morning hours, and they also do shorter recap shows throughout the day. The afternoon recap show is the easiest to swallow but the play-by-play is re-voiced later and sometimes feels a little distant from the actual action. The live broadcast features by far the best broadcast team in Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett.

Mets Sleepwalking Their Way To An Early Fall

It is only July 1 and there are 84 games left, so it is a little early for Mets fans to be crying that the sky is falling and a change needs to be made, but the sky is falling and a change needs to be made.

I understand that the roster is badly depleted by injury and once those players come back, there is a good possibility that the Mets will again become a playoff contender. But there is also the possibility that Delgado, Beltran, Reyes, Maine, Perez, Pagan, and the rest won't ever really be healthy this year. And the possibility that by the time they do come back, they'll be too far back to help.

Right now the Mets are in third place in the East, three games behind Philadelphia. They're five behind San Francisco for the Wild Card. Both of those spots are reachable and all of the teams they're chasing are extremely flawed. But the Mets also went 9-18 in June and show no signs of holding onto their spot, let along of gaining ground on anyone.

Was Mark DeRosa the solution? Probably not. The Indians reportedly wanted Bobby Parnell in return, and no matter how bad the offense gets, the Mets probably can't trade a young potential pitching star for an aging journeyman utilityman (two euphemisms for "not relly good enough to lock down a position anywhere"). DeRosa is versatile and has some power, both of which the Mets need. But he isn't good enough to supplant any of the injured players once they return. If a trade happens, it needs to be for a full-fledged star who can make the offense go, and who will stay in the lineup when the Mets are healthy. An outfielder is most likely (goodbye Pagan and Church).

Right now there are too many teams in the hunt (that is, too close to be willing to trade away good talent) for the Mets to make the kind of move they need to, so perhaps Omar Minaya can be taken off the hook. Dumping a young pitcher for another .270 guy who will hit 15-20 homers is not a move they can make. They need a stud and considering how terribly the rest of the East is playing, the Mets can wait. But that window is closing fast. And Minaya is to blame for signing Oliver Perez at a premium instead of Derek Lowe.

And as unfair as it may seem to start pointing fingers at the manager with this many starters on the disabled list, I am continually baffled by some of the things Jerry Manuel does. It seems that every game I see on TV, I am confused by some critical move he makes, so I have to assume it happens in the ones I don't see as well.

On Sunday the Mets trailed the Yankees by 1. Frankie Rodriguez had two runners on base with two outs in the top of the 9th. Derek Jeter was batting with Mariano Rivera on deck. What did Manuel do? He had Frankie pitch to Jeter. Once the count got to two balls, they then intentionally walked him. But they gave Derek Freaking Jeter three pitches to drive into a gap somewhere rather than just putting him on and going after a guy with two career at bats.

Then they were on TV again on Monday against the Brewers. With runners on 1st and 2nd and one out in the top of the 2nd inning, the Mets had Brian Schneider hitting. I'm not sure what you know about Brian Schneider, but let's just say he must be a really, really good defensive catcher if he's still in the league. Luis Castillo was on deck and Castillo has been hitting well of late. So obviously, the play is to have Schneider bunt the runners both into scoring position and have Castillo take a shot at driving them in with two outs because you can assume that the Brewers won't walk Castillo to load the bases for the pitcher in only the 2nd inning. And even if they did, at least you force their hand...make them make the tough decisions and put their pitcher on the spot. If nothing else, you make the pitcher throw 5-10 more pitches. Nope. Nothing doing; Schneider stuck out, Castillo flew out. Braden Looper cruised through 5 more easy innings, Brewers roll.

Many times Manuel doesn't seem to make proper situational pitching substitutions. They've become the NL leader in stolen bases, but still don't seem to have any kind of identity on offense. They don't seem to hit-and-run when it's called for. They seem to miss many bunting opportunities. They don't exactly play small-ball, but they have no power game either. And they've made a number of baserunning blunder. He doesn't have any semblance of a consistent batting order to allow his players to feel comfortable in a role. The announcers hammer the players every single time they're on ESPN about not having leaders, but I don't think it is the players that are problem. Wright leads the league in hitting, catches everything hit at him, is the first off the bench for high fives and does everything that is asked of him. Santana clearly is the anchor for the pitchers. Sheffield is a model citizen and is having a great year. They have leaders in place who are leading. But there seems to be no direction from the club.

Manuel seems like a good guy. He has a sense of humor. He is intelligent. He is good with the media and deflects attention well. But he doesn't seem like the kind of manager who will light a fire under these guys and after 5 years of being calm and composed and mechanical and average (under Manual and Willie Randolph), maybe they need someone to come in and scream at them every now and then. Like Bobby Valentine.