Thursday, February 26, 2009

Coming Monday: Q&A With John Altavilla

The OTP is on the disabled list for a couple of days with the flu, but brighter days are ahead. The college basketball season is sprinting toward the postseason and the UConn women are flirting with destiny again, trying to complete the third undefeated season in program history.

On Monday, Hartford Courant women's writer John Altavilla stops by for a Q&A about Geno and the gang, looking ahead to both the season finale Monday night against Rutgers and the Big East and NCAA Tournaments to follow.

As always, we encourage you to leave questions for John in the comments section and we will get to as many as we can Monday. Also, the OTP will be at the Big East women's tournament at the XL Center starting March 6, providing on-the-scene news and insights.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

All Lined Up For Wednesday

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox broke camp this afternoon, moving two miles up Edison Ave, to City of Palms Park, where the exhibition season begins Wednesday against Boston College. With that, Terry Francona announced the lineups for both of Wednesday's games, including a nightcap against the Twins at nearby Hammond Stadium, the first of five games for the coveted Mayor's Cup. Jason Varitek will make his catching debut Thursday against Pittsburgh, workng with Jon Lester.

Here's the Wednesday rundown:

BOSTON COLLEGE (1:05 p.m): Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Kris Johnson, Junichi Tazawa, Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard.

Julio Lugo, ss
Rocco Baldelli, lf
David Ortiz, dh
J.D. Drew, rf
Chris Carter, 1b
George Kottaras, c
Jonathan Van Every, cf
Nick Green, 2b
Angel Chavez, 3b

TWINS (7:05 p.m., NESN): Tim Wakefield, Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, Billy Traber and Dustin Richardson.

Jacoby Ellsbury, cf
Dustin Pedroia, 2b
Kevin Youkilis, 1b
Jason Bay, lf
Brad Wilkerson, rf
Jed Lowrie, ss
Jeff Bailey, dh
Josh Bard, c
Gil Velazquez, 3b

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bowa Contradictor: Penny Works His Way Back

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- To the media that covers the Red Sox, pitching coach John Farrell has been an MVP candidate the past two years. On a team where a straight, on-the-record answer from anyone along the management chain is as frequent as a no-hitter, Farrell has never shied from trying to be honest and illuminating, no matter how toxic the topic.

Consider Monday, the day righthander Brad Penny made his live batting practice debut for the Red Sox, after his season ended last September with the Dodgers because of a bad shoulder. Penny's injury took a backseat last week to insult, fired across the country, with malice toward one, by Dodgers coach Larry Bowa.

Responding to Penny's criticism of Bowa's backstabbing ways last season, Bowa flailed away with the knife right into Penny's chest.

"Is this the same Penny that never went to meetings, that came late, left early, was never in shape, always had an excuse when things didn't go right, didn't help the young kids at all?" Bowa said last Tuesday. "Coaches get on players when they're lazy and don't work. I think he should worry about getting hitters out in the American League East and not worry about me."


When asked Monday, Penny didn't offer his thoughts. But Farrell, who had just watched Penny pitch with a purpose in a successful BP session, was at least willing to defend his pitcher, even if he never mentioned Bowa's name. It was politically savvy and publicly enlightening, the kind of shrewd, yet straightforward response that enhances Farrell's standing as a future major league manager.

"I have really no reaction to what feedback has come from the Dodgers," Farrell said. "What we have to base our judgments on are what he shows us day in and day out. We've given him some direction and he's responded very good. I think he sees a group of pitchers around him who work really hard and are disciplined in their approach. That's the norm we have here and there have been no issues fitting in."

If healthy, Penny figures to add to an already deep and talented Red Sox rotation. As a No. 4 starter with No. 2 stuff, Penny could well return to the 16-win plateau he established in 2006 and 2007 with the Dodgers. For now, the Red Sox are content to bring Penny back slowly, pitching him every three days, instead of the usual two, giving his shoulder ample time to regain full strength.

"I felt great," Penny said. "Today, for me, I answered a lot of questions, mentally and physically. I didn't really know what to expect the first time going out there to face hitters, but everything felt great. It's been awhile since I've been out there to pitch, my command wasn't where it normally is, but it wasn't bad. I felt like had life on my fastball, a good rotation on my breaking ball. The splitter was a little erratic, but that will come later in spring.

"I feel 100 percent, but the schedule I'm on now, it's smart. I feel like I'm ready. I don't feel like I have any restrictions. I'm just going to trust the program they have me on and go with that. If they listened to me, I'd want to go out every other day, but they're probably being smarter, giving me more time to strengthen my shoulder to where it should have been last year and it wasn't.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heavy Heart, Full Stomach

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The OTP really only had one mission here at Red Sox spring training this week: Find Kevin Youkilis and get the inside story of his brush with burger greatness.

If you are a fan of the Travel Channel's "Man vs. Food," you already know the basics. Back in late October, host Adam Richman came to Boston to take on the burger beast at Eagle's Deli on the campus of Boston College. The task was tall and tasty: Put away the 12-pound Eagle Burger -- 5 pounds meat, 2 pounds bacon and cheese and 5 pounds of fries -- in just one hour.

No one had ever completed the task, and, as it happened, neither did Adam. But the show's biggest surprise was Youkilis' cameo appearance, having stopped by the deli with his wife Enza for a quick meal and stumbling upon the show's taping, providing the New York nosher with some home-kitchen disadvantage.

“It was the most unbelievable thing I’d ever seen,” Youkilis said. “To eat that in a whole day is ridiculous, let alone in an hour. It was sick, to say the least. It was disgusting. I was laughing the whole time. With two people, you could do it. He only finished about five pounds of meat. I don’t know the closest someone’s ever come. I don’t think anyone has done it. It makes you appreciate just a burger and fries."

But this feel-good story of the spring took an unexpected turn when we learned why Youkilis was dressed in a full suit and tie -- hardly the typical fashion for a campus deli.

Turns out, Kevin and Enza had just come from attending the funeral of young Christian Meyer, the 8-year-old boy and brain cancer patient that Youkilis had befriended during the season, even hitting a home run for the brave child on Aug. 17 and high-fiving Christian near the Red Sox dugout after circling the bases.

“We were at his funeral at the chapel at BC and afterwards we went for a bite to eat,” Youkilis said. “My wife was pretty upset and we were driving around, thinking about getting food and I said, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger.’ She always talks about the place from college and we went there to get a burger. Next thing you know, they’re filming this “Man vs. Food” there.

“It was actually probably the best thing for us after going to something so sad. It put a smile on our face. It was perfect timing. [Richman’s] a funny guy. He laughs the whole time. Before he even did it, he’s like, 'My job is to look like an idiot and eat food.' He’s a nice guy, a good guy. It was a good time."

To contribute to the Meyer Family Trust, send a check to c/o John Talvacchia Eckert, Seamans LLC, One International Place Boston, MA 02110 or — in honor of Christian Daniel Meyer — to c/o Massachusetts General Hospital, Pediatric Brain Tumor Fund, 165 Cambridge St., Suite 600, Boston, MA 02114.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rocco Ready To Roll

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Rocco Baldelli never heard boos -- or any other associated nastiness -- while patrolling center field for the Rays at Fenway Park. No need to worry, since Baldelli was playing before a stacked upper deck.

"I used to get more positive things yelled than negative things," Baldelli said. "It’s probably all my friends. I’ve had groups of people that I know buy all the seats in center field before I came into town. I know the people up there."

He won't have that luxury in the new Yankee Stadium this summer, with seats close to the outfield and sentiments stacked against him. In his first season witht the Sox, the Rhode Island native knows exactly what he's getting himself into.

“I know it’s going to be unlike anything I’ve experienced before,” said Baldelli, an outfielder who signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox in January. “You just get a feel for it, just watching it from afar, how exciting it is, the type of rivalry it is. In Tampa, we didn’t have anything resembling that.”

Certainly, no one was likely spending days on end on Tampa talk radio comparing and contrasting offseason moves by the Rays and Yankees. But with the Red Sox, Baldelli is already a key figure in the rivalry’s renewal.

While the Yankees got all the shiny toys around Christmas, signing free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira and pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Red Sox made less-heralded moves, bringing in Baldelli and pitchers Brad Penny and John Smoltz.

In that respect, the Yankees have already built a division lead.

“Obviously, I see it happening,” Baldelli said. “But you more just laugh. The things that go on in this game, what I do isn’t going to affect it. It’s not something I’ve gotten caught up in or cared about.”

All Baldelli cares about is staying healthy and on the field. Baldelli, 27, who is being brought along slowly by the Red Sox this spring, says he feels fine, but is starting to get somewhat sick of all the inquiries about his physical well-being.

“I was going to make a sign that says, ‘Feeling good, thanks for asking,’ and tack it to my locker, so I don’t have to answer that anymore,” Baldelli said. “I’ve been disappointed a lot at times, but as far as self pity, no one really wants to hear any excuses. No one feels that bad for you, no matter what you’re going through. I’ll be fine. I’ll manage no matter what’s going on.”

With Mark Kotsay out at least two months with a back injury, Baldelli is one more injury away from being an everyday outfielder. It is uncertain if Baldelli could handle such a load, but he has a better sense of his capabilities after re-learning his body last season. Despite his ongoing condition, Baldelli still made a significant impact with the Rays last October.

“I didn’t know what I was dealing with before,” Baldelli said. “Pretty much through trail and error is how I figured out what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I’m pretty comfortable with what I’m doing right now. I have a pretty good idea.“When my relative complete health gets back to me, I’d love to be an everyday player again. It would be great. I’ve never really set any goals as far as how many games I want to play or statistics or anything like that. Whatever they ask, I just want to be ready to do it.”

If healthy, Baldelli can help the Red Sox take one more step in 2009 than a year ago, when Baldelli's Rays ended the Red Sox's season in Game 7 of the ALCS.

“Playing against him his rookie year [in 2003] was like, man, this guy is going to be a good player for a long time, so you feel bad for that scenario,” Mike Lowell said. “It’s a relief when they re-diagnosed it and he can still play. I relate it to when they told me I had cancer, but they told me it was very beatable. He’s a really good guy and a guy who can really help us out. I’m actually really happy he’s on our team.

“I think the guys we signed, there’s more room for error. Without them, we were a really good team that almost got to the World Series. Now, if they’re healthy, imagine how good we can be.”

Ortiz Explains Banned Trainer Relationship

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- David Ortiz talked for approximately five minutes this morning about his relationship with controversial trainer Angel Presinal, who has been banned from major league clubhouses since 2002 because of his links to steroids. Presinal's name surfaced Friday in a report in the New York Daily News linking him to Alex Rodriguez. But Presinal, from the Dominican Republic, has also worked with Dominican stars such as Ortiz.

Ortiz said Saturday that he trains at a facility "five minutes" from his Dominican home that Presinal works at, but that he was never approached by Presinal about using steroids.

"Pretty much everybody, that's where they go because it's like in the center of the city, right in the middle where everybody lives," Ortiz said. "It's like an Olympic place where everybody goes and does his workout, hitting, running, and all this stuff. That's where we work out at. It's not his. He knows how to train people and teach how to do exercises and things like that. But, like I said, you are the owner of your own decisions. It's sad that he's involved in things like this, but you've got to be careful. That's what I got to say.

"I've known him for a long time," Ortiz said. "He [doesn't] just teach baseball players. He's got guys that run marathons, volleyball players, basketball players, everybody down there. He's been doing that for years. All I know is we all work with him as a group of guys that want to be ready in spring training and that's about it."

Ortiz said he tries to be careful about who he associates with, especially in light of concerns about steroids. But he has no problem being associated with Presinal.

"I don't care what people say," Ortiz said. "It's the way you show yourself out there. That's what I think it is. But definitely you've got to be careful with anybody that is involved in any kind of stuff like whatever is going on right now. I don't have that problem. I'm pretty much always with my family. I'm not the kind of person that creates a relationship with strangers."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Notes From Camp: Ortiz Out Again

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- David Ortiz said his left shoulder felt "better" Friday, but it wasn't good enough to get back on the field at Red Sox camp. Ortiz missed his second straight day after his unfortunate sleeping accident Wednesday night, but he told reporters after Friday's workouts that he planned on giving it a try Saturday.

The prevailing feeling is that Ortiz could have played if this were September, not February, and manager Terry Francona, who always downplays injury concerns, did so again Friday.

"I think tomorrow he'll be fine," Francona said. "His left shoulder ... it's sore, but it's not something that anybody has had concerns about or he needs to go get checked. Keeping him inside, he can get his work done. Today's a quick day anyway, he can get things done inside."

Friday was a quick day because the team participated in the annual charity golf tournament for a local children's hospital.

Hanging Chad

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- I've never actually met Chad Curtis, but in 1992 I shared pleasantries with the former outfielder at Fenway Park.

On the same August night that Larry Bird retired, and Gary Disarcina wore a "33" on his cap, Curtis was playing right field for the Angels and I was playing wiseguy for the right field grandstand. Late in the game, Curtis was long-tossing between innings and skied a throw into the Angels bullpen. I stood up, yelled something super-witty and clever like, "Nice throw, Chad!" and much to my great delight, Curtis heard it, turned in my direction and gave me a full-armed flip-off, glove and everything.

I've been a Chad Curtis fan ever since. Dustin Pedroia? Not so much, according to Terry Francona.

"Last year I introduced [Pedroia] to [Ken] Macha,” Francona said Thursday. “Ken was just making conversation and he said, ‘You know, you remind me of Chad Curtis,’ and he really meant it as a compliment. Pedey was like, ‘Are you [kidding] me?’ I went from I was just introducing a friend to the guy to me having to hold Pedey back.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"A Necessary Evil"

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The first day of live batting practice is always the worst day of live BP for the hitters. This early in camp, the hitters are way behind the pitchers, in terms of sharpness, making a 94 mph fastball seem like 114.

Even the manager, Terry Francona, concedes that the title, live batting practice, is quite misleading. If anything, Thursday was target practice for the relief pitchers, with the hitters rarely, if ever, taking a swing. Jacoby Ellsbury hit one ball of the wall on Field 4 against Manny Delcarmen, but that was the extent of the hitting show for the gathered crowds at the spring training complex.

"It's all for the pitchers," Francona said. "It's kind of a necessary evil for the hitters. But we need to get the pitchers out there seeing hitters in the box. It's tough. I know the first day, guys get in there, everyone seems like they're throwing 100, and some were, but that's just part of what you have to do. It's not a lot of fun for the hitters."

J.D. Drew quietly let all the pitches he saw Thursday -- many from newly-acquired reliever Ramon Ramirez, sail right past. It was a practice he learned from Mark McGwire, back when they were teammates with the Cardinals. Manny Ramirez took the same approach with the Red Sox, never once swinging at a pitch on the first day of live BP.

“[McGwire] said, ‘I just track, pick up the seam, pick up rotation,’” Drew said after Thursday’s workouts. “I’ve used that over the past few years. I can go in there and take swings, but it’s going to look ugly. Those guys look like their throwing hard, their sliders are nasty. When they tell you a fastball is coming inside, you don’t want to step into one. It’s a matter of them getting work on location and letting us see balls coming off the mound.”

Notes From Camp: Ortiz Rests Left Shoulder

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A largely uneventful Red Sox spring training camp continued Thursday, the first day hitters faced live batting practice. For the most part, that meant hitters watching pitches go by, choosing to track the ball, rather than feebly swinging at it.

One man did not take any swings because he didn't participate in batting practice. David Ortiz was given the day off to rest a sore left shoulder, the result of sleeping on it funny, according to manager Terry Francona. Ortiz is expected to resume activities today, a somewhat light Friday because the team is taking part in the annual charity golf tournament for Children's Hospital of South Florida.

Among Thursday's other nuggets ...

-- Daisuke Matsuzaka threw a simulated game for the Japanese national team in preparation for the WBC. Francona said the team is in constant communication with the righthander, who is being monitored by two members of the Red Sox training staff.

-- Rocco Baldelli did not stretch before Thursday's workouts, as the team tries to walk a fine line with their fourth outfielder, still recovering from the muscle disorder that almost ended his career a year ago.

"We'll stay away from anything he thinks he needs to stay away from," Francona said. "The hardest thing for me so far, he wants to be a great teammate and we're into him, saying, hey, you're here to be on the field, not to prove to us that you can do the rundowns. We'll sit on him pretty tight."

-- J.D. Drew took part in the full range of activities Thursday, an indication that his balky back is feeling fine.

-- Righty reliever Wes Littleton, who is out of options, will get a lot of looks early in spring training games, as the team must make a decision on him sooner rather than later.

-- Francona praised pitcher Michael Bowden for his offseason conditioning program at the API in Florida, in which the righthander put on eight pounds of muscle. "He looks like [Bears linebacker Brian] Urlacher," Francona said.

162 Games? Pedroia Has A Prayer

Good morning from sunny Fort Myers, where sunscreen is the hot commodity and the only snow reference is to the snowbirds that populate the minor league complex, hoping to get a glimpse, and occassional autograph, from their Red Sox heroes.

Sometimes the interaction gets very personal. Dustin Pedroia found this out the other day, when a friend of David Ortiz stopped Pedroia on his way back to the clubhouse after a day of drills. The friend had one simple mission: To offer a prayer for the defending AL MVP.

"He was like, 'I want to pray for you,'" Pedroia recounted this morning. "I’m like, 'OK dude.' He was like [bowing] and talking, for like five minutes. There’s fans everywhere and I’m looking around like, 'What the [heck] is going on here?' He goes, 'How do you feel?' I’m like, ‘About the same as before you started.’ But He’s on my side now."

Pedroia is hoping a little good fortune, along with another offseason of working out at Athletes' Performance Institute in Tempe, Ariz., could lead to playing in all 162 games this season. Only five players went the distance in 2008, with Pedroia playing in 157.

"I did a little bit more running," Pedroia said. "I conditioned six days a week, instead of two last year. I want to make sure my legs are even stronger than the year before. I want to play every game and make sure I’m not tired throughout the year. I think if you condition your body the right way, you can do that. It’s a long season, but if you take care of your body, you can play them all. It’s a big part of what I’m trying to do, is be consistent every day and help this team win games.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Starting Tomorrow: Live From Fort Myers

It's back to baseball for the OTP, as we head down to Red Sox spring training camp for a week of coverage from Fort Myers, starting Thursday morning. We'll bring you the scene from the minor league complex, with breaking news, interviews and insights, and a special feature or two.

Monday, February 16, 2009

No. 1 UConn vs. No, 4 Pittsburgh Live Blog

Welcome to another edition of the OuttaThePahk Live Blog. Tonight, we check in on the biggest regular season game to date, as No. 4 Pittburgh faces the top-ranked Huskies for the first of two meetings this season to decide the Big East regular season championship.

For UConn, tonight is the first true test of their new normal, with Jerome Dyson now officially out for the season. Hasheem Thabeet seems poised to take the scoring load on his broad shoulders, but he will be challenged tonight by a supremely confident DeJuan Blair. Levance Fields and A.J. Price will spar in the undercard.


Pitt 76-68, Final: Pitt beats a No. 1 for the first time. We'll see what Thabeet's answer is in early March.

Pitt 71-63, 30.3: Blair talked the talk and stomped the stomp tonight. His domination of Hasheem Thabeet ends with an emphatic block and the drawing of Thabeet's fifth foul. Blair has 22 points and 23 rebounds. Thabeet: 5 and 5.

Pitt 69-63, 52.8: Pitt gets a huge break, with Young rebounding a desperation three by Fields as the shot-clock ran out. Gets its break when Robinson picks up a turnover and is fouled, but Pitt gets the final break of the night, when Robinson missed the front end of a 1-and-1.

Pitt 67-63, 1:38: Kemba Walker excites on the court, and he just made a huge end-to-end play, stealing the ball, pitching it ahead and corralling it for a one-man fastbreak layup. The Huskies are still alive. Pitt 67-61, 2:20: Levance Fields had been shut out all night, going 0-for-7 from the field. But he's made his past two and they're both dagger threes to give the Panthers a six-point lead.

Pitt 59-58, 4:20: Jermaine Dixon with a three and a one-point lead.

UConn 58-56, 5:10: Thabeet intimidates Blair into a travel. Can Thabeet make the difference down the stretch?

Tied 56-56, 5:44: Blair is back in the game and back in the scoring column with another three-point play to tie the score. Thabeet comes back in with four fouls.

UConn 56-51, 7:13: The Huskies are playing with enormous energy right now, literally tearing the ball out of Pittsburgh's hands. Jeff Adrien is showing the nation his game tonight, giving the Huskies their biggest lead with a wing jumper and imposing his will on defense. UConn on an 11-2 run.

UConn 52-49, 9:00: Kemba Walker does finish the break and UConn leads. Then Stanley Robinson takes Blair out of the game with an errant elbow. Robinson then hits to give the Huskies their largest lead. Blair may be knocked out, but the Huskies aren't, a remarkable feat with out Jerome Dyson and essentially without Thabeet.

10:36: Craig Austrie can't finish a fastbreak layup that would have given UConn the lead, but the Huskies get a make-up offensive foul call against Blair at the other end.

Pitt 49-48, 11:20: Wow. Just ... wow. Mike Kitts calls Thabeet for his fourth foul on an offensive foul in the paint with the ball 30 feet from the basket. Jim Calhoun turned about five different colors. What a brutal, brutal call in a big game. UConn has still not led since 3-2.

Pitt 49-45: 12:00: Biggs picks up his fourth foul and Adrien continues his assault with a strong drive to the basket. But Young (21 points) hits his fourth three pointer to push the lead back to four.

Pitt 46-43, 13:37: Jeff Adrien is starting to make his presence felt with four straight points and a strong defensive possession against the hard-charging Blair. Thabeet is set to come back in, and he must assert himself against Blair to give the Huskies a real chance.

Pitt 41-37 17:06: Blair keeps the good times rolling with another tough post move and another rebound, giving him 17 and 16. But fouls are also piling up, with Young and Tyrell Biggs each drawing their third.

Pitt 38-36, 19:03: Craig Austrie pulls the Huskies into a tie with a transition three, but Thabeet picks up his third foul and comes out of the game.


Pitt 36-33, Halftime: Huge shot at the shot-clock buzzer with three seconds left by A.J. Price to keep the Huskies close. Price was forced to shoot an off-balance three with a man draped on him as the clock reached zero and he buired it. Price has 15 at the half to counter Blair. Blair helped UConn at the end of the half with a foolish attempt at a long range step-back, setting up that final possession and Price's three. Blair played like Bill Russell and Thabeet looked like Frederick Weis. If Thabeet returns to normal and Blair returns to earth, this game is still UConn's for the taking.

Pitt 34-28, 1:53: Blair is totally backing up his pregame trash talk, shrugging off a Thabeet block by again scoring inside and drawing Thabeet's second foul. It's all Blair, all the time, and Thabeet is riding the pine.

Pitt: 31-28, 2:13: Blair continues to dominate Thabeet at the offensive end, taking it to the Huskies big man to record a first-half double-double. Thabeet has looked passive tonight, even before Blair flipped him early in the game. If not for a huge disparity in fouls (9-3 Pitt), UConn might be down double-digits right now.

Pitt 29-26, 4:10: Blair really getting going against Thabeet, now hitting a turnaround jumper for eight points and 10 rebounds in the half. Pitt 25-24, 5:43: Gavin Edwards continues his active play in big games, picking up a loose ball after Thabeet kept an offensive rebound alive and scoring to cut the deficit to one. But Blair is taking it to Thabeet at the other end for the second time.

Pitt 23-20: 7:49: A.J. Price is heating up, hitting his second three to give him 10 points. For all the talk about the big men, it's Young and Price from the outside that has dominated the scoring so far.

Pitt 21-13, 9:09: Ouch, Fields hits Young on a deep alley-oop to force a UConn timeout. Pitt is still getting second-chance points and UConn still turning it over. Not a good combo.

Pitt 17-11, 10:20: ESPN's Doug Gottlieb talked before the game about Pitt's opportunity to find success on the weak side after Thabeet goes for the block, and Tyrell Biggs indeed scores on an offensive rebound for a 17-10 lead. UConn committing a lot of early turnovers.

Pitt, 15-10: 12:08: Thabeet has returned, and makes his presence felt with a monster dunk, but Pitt continues to make hay from the outside with Young, who has 10 points.

Pitt 8-3, 15:27: What in the world was that? It didn't look like a dirty play, but DeJaun Blair practically snapped Hasheem Thabeet's left arm in half with a Hulk Hogan takedown in the paint. It looked awful, but hopefully nothing serious. Stanley Robinson came out aggressive for the Huskies, but Sam Young has been even better as Best Supporting Actor with five points.

Q&A With The Courant's Mike Anthony

Welcome to the first guest interview here at OuttaThePahk. With No. 1 UConn taking on No. 4 Pittsburgh at the XL Center tonight -- the first of two meetings to determine the conference regular season champion -- we are joined by Hartford Courant men's writer Mike Anthony to talk about the team and the game.

OuttaThePahk: You have seen both extremes in your years covering the team, including a disastrous 2006-07 and now a legitimate shot at a national championship. How has coach Calhoun adjusted his style with this group as it has matured into a title contender?

Mike Anthony: He's toned it down a bit. He trusts these guys. There was a point early in the season, after a lackluster victory against an overwhelmed team in early December, where he laid into each and every player for long stretches. For the Huskies, it was not a fun night. Upperclassmen were re-introduced to a most difficult side of Calhoun. Freshman met a different man than they had come to know during the recruiting process.

It was all by design. Calhoun wanted this group to understand that he thought it was capable of great things, but that it would take extraordinary effort and focus. He wanted them to know that a difficult road lay ahead and that it would never be easy. Even on a night when the scoreboard would suggest things were, indeed, easy, UConn players endured Calhoun coming down on them -- his way of preparing them for upcoming tests of endurance and character.

Since then, he's been calm - by his standards, anyway. Calhoun is full of fire and he'll never be easy to play for, but the group he's coaching has a better understanding of what he's looking for. He's been through a lot with A.J. Price, Jeff Adrien, Craig Austrie and the rest, and he's learned what they're made of over the last few years. He likes what he sees.

Two years ago, Calhoun was all over them en route to 14 losses. Last season, Calhoun was particularly animated and frustrated early on, but both he and the players found their groove in a 10-game winning streak. That was an us-against-the-world situation, Calhoun's favorite, and I think the Huskies and Calhoun came out of last season with a mutual understanding for each other. This season, expectations are high but Calhoun - again, still animated, still fiery - has a certain calm about him for knowing these players well, knowing what they've been though and knowing what they're capable of.

OTP: Tonight is the first of two matchups with Pittsburgh that will likely decide the regular season title. What do you see as the most critical individual matchup tonight?

MA: The Big guys. Hasheem Thabeet vs. DeJuan Blair. A.J. Price-Levance Fields is critical at the point. But this is a high-profile matchup in the paint between two of the nation's dominant centers. Thabeet is playing better than ever, perhaps better than some people thought he might be capable. He's a shot-blocking, rebounding and scoring machine who suddenly looks like a go-to player on offense. Blair is a bruiser with touch. He'll challenge Thabeet physically more than most players. He'll give up six inches but with throw a shoulder into him, try to out-muscle him. Can Thabeet continue to dominate without fouling? That's the key.

OTP: Thabeet put on an offensive display Saturday unlike any he's had before. Do you sense he wants to shoulder a greater scoring role the rest of the season with Jerome Dyson out?

MA: I don't think Thabeet automatically assumes he has to be a primary scoring option because Jerome is out. I just think his game has continued to evolve to the point where he's given UConn that option. Even when Thabeet was a freshman, UConn wanted to get him more and more touches. Two years later, he's getting better position, finishing some of those touches, passing well from the post and changing the look of the offense just by being an important part of the passing patterns. When he can finish like he did at Seton Hall, watch out. Thabeet wants to be a scoring option, always has. I'm sure every player is thinking they have to pick up the slack a little with Dyson out, but Thabeet becoming a scorer is more the product of three years of growth - muscle, smarts, confidence. He's ready, it seems, to consistently do more than block shots, and that means to the world to UConn.

OTP: How important will freshman Kemba Walker be over the final two months, and does he have the poise to accept a major role come tournament time?

MA: I think so. He's got poise, charisma and, of course, an incredible ability with the ball. He was clearly nervous at times early this season but he appears to have overcome that. He's still a freshman, of course, so I would expect some ups and downs - heck, he wasn't great at Seton Hall in Dyson's first game on the sideline - but I think he'll be an important factor on offense and defense for a team suddenly in need or more speed, toughness and creativity from the guard position.

OTP: Is Jeff Adrien among the most underrated players in the conference? Where would this team be without his contributions, and how would you rate his pro prospects?

MA: Well, I know Calhoun has tremendous appreciation for him and opposing coaches have tremendous respect for him. Is there a more consistent player in the Big East? It would be hard to find one. You know he'll score. You know he'll rebound. You know he'll defend. He's become a great leader. You know he won't be daunted by trying moments or the big stage. He's still, as Calhoun says, the rock for this team. He's irreplaceable.

As for his pro prospects, my initial feelings, which lasted awhile, were always that Jeff, despite his success and capabilities, was good enough to carve out a very successful European career. Now I don't know. Those around him say he's so tough and so stubborn that he's destined to find a spot on an NBA roster. If he winds up in a camp with a team that has the proper roster makeup, I wouldn't put the NBA past him. He's a little short for his position, but otherwise certainly has the body, and he definitely has the work ethic.

OTP: Two months from now, are they sweeping the streets of Hartford after one parade, two, or none?

MA: What, is the women's team good or something? That's what I hear. So I guess they have a shot to win it all. So do the men. Predictions are cheap. I would say that I think UConn has as good a chance as any team in the nation to be playing the best basketball come late March. Winning six in a row ... it's tough. No slip-ups. A tightrope. That's the case for any team. There are a handful of teams out there, at least, that have legitimate hopes for a title and UConn should be in that group. They are in a unique position of having to redefine themselves after the loss of Dyson. But they have a center who suddenly looks all-world, a tremendous senior power forward and a tremendous senior point guard. Those are pretty good pieces to work with. If others step up and fill in the rest, UConn could very well be planning a parade.

Monty In The Hall

UConn-Pitt is the big story today at OTP, but first we must make mention of the women's edition yesterday. Not the game, which UConn won in another rout, but the tribute to senior point guard Renee Montgomery, whose No. 20 was added to UConn's Ring Of Honor after the game.

Montgomery was hardly at the top of the recruiting radar in 2004, when the Huskies signed her out of South Charleston, WV. The high school teammate of Tennessee's Alexis Hornbuckle, Montgomery caught Geno Auriemma's eye in recruiting visits as the Huskies' future point guard. And almost from the time she arrived in Storrs, she displayed the talent and confidence to become of the the all-time greats, a player who always reminded me of Syracuse legend Sherman Douglas.

Anyone who saw her performance as a freshman against Georgia in the 2006 Sweet 16 knew she was going to be a special player. Now, as a senior, she is leading the Huskies toward perhaps the third undefeated season in program history. Some might wonder why Geno decided to buck tradition and honor Montgomery while she is still a player, but no one can question her worthiness to be there.

What A Bunch Of Homers

Not that this has anything to do with anything, but I was watching that classic four-consecutive homer game between the Dodgers and Padres in 2006 on the Baseball Network tonight and thought I was watching some sort of bizarro Red Sox game.

Consider this list of 16 former and current Red Sox who appeared in that crazy 11-10 game on Sept. 18, 2006, in which the Dodgers hit four consecutive ninth-inning homers to tie it, before Nomar Garciaparra won it with a two-run shot off Rudy Seanez in the 10th:

Dodgers: Manager Grady Little, batting coach Bill Mueller, Garciaparra, J.D. Drew (homer in 9th), Julio Lugo, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, Aaron Sele (winning pitcher).

Padres: Dave Roberts, Manny Alexander, Todd Walker, Mark Bellhorn, Josh Bard (former and current), Alan Embree, Cla Meredith, Seanez (losing pitcher).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Coming Up: Live From Sox Spring Training

The blog went quiet this weekend, but the OTP will be back (and back big!) this week, as it hits the road to Fort Myers for a week of live blogging from Red Sox spring training camp, starting Thursday morning and running through Feb. 24.

Also, with No. 1 UConn facing Pittsburgh in a critical Big East showdown tomorrow night in Hartford, we will be joined Monday by Courant UConn men's writer Mike Anthony for a Q&A around noon, then I will provide a live running commentary during the game, starting at 7 p.m.

As always, feel free to send comments or questions, as we are always looking for ways to make OTP your source for Red Sox and UConn commentary. Thanks!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Head Turtle Waxes UConn Again

More than five years later, Gary Williams is still fuming about Jim Calhoun and the recruitment of Rudy Gay. And that lingering bitterness has dragged the Gay recruitment back into the spotlight.

In the second of a three-part series in Friday's Washington Post on the decline of Williams' Maryland program, writers Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda recount Gay's recruitment in 2003, a battle won by UConn and questioned heavily by Williams, especially after UConn paid $22,000 for an exhibition game with the Beltway Ballers, who were affiliated with Gay's AAU program.

In Friday's article, Williams again hints at wrongdoing by Calhoun and the UConn program in Gay's recruitment, which is portrayed as the major turning point in the downward trend of Williams' program.

"Gay's recruitment," the article states, "so scrutinized that it appeared to be the impetus for an NCAA rule change in its aftermath, cemented Williams's belief that signing the most sought-after recruits in the current climate often depends on practices he is unwilling to undertake. As a result of that experience ... Williams has steadfastly avoided pursuing relationships with many of the most influential power brokers in the recruiting world.

"'If [Gay] wanted to come here, and we recruited him, and we offered him a scholarship, why didn't he come here?' Williams said during an hour-long interview [with the Post] last week. 'It had to be for another reason, right?'"

UConn was within NCAA rules at the time it made the $22,000 payment to the Ballers in 2003, but because of that incident, the NCAA soon after banned such payments. Too late for Williams, who remarked upon losing Gay in 2003 that "We could have scheduled an AAU team and given them $25,000 like some schools I know."

At the end of Friday's article, Williams again takes a veiled swipe at UConn.

"Third-party recruiting -- in other words, making sure somebody gets taken care of [financially] -- I am not going to do it," Williams said. "Period. There is no argument there. If that makes me a bad recruiter, then I am a bad recruiter."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

UConn's Dyson Out Indefinitely

Devastating news for the Huskies today. Junior guard Jerome Dyson, a major factor in UConn's rise to No. 1 in the nation, is out indefinitely with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. Dyson will have surgery next week and is likely done for the year. Jim Calhoun hinted as much in a statement released by the school this afternoon.

"We are obviously all very disappointed for Jerome, who has been such a big part of why we are 23-1 and in first place in the Big East," Calhoun said. "I know that he will work hard in the offseason and be back next year as a major contributor to our future success. As for our team going forward this season, it is another challenge we will have to face."

Dyson, who was averaging 13.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists and leads the team with 44 steals, was injured early in Wednesday's 63-49 victory over Sryacuse. Freshman Kemba Walker, already averaging 8.8 points in 23.6 minutes per game, should assume an even larger role.

Monday Q&A: Hartford Courant's Mike Anthony

Hartford Courant UConn men's beat writer Mike Anthony will be joining me for a Q&A session Monday in advance of the UConn-Pittsburgh game at the XL Center. If you have any questions for Mike on this battle of Big East titans or about UConn in particular, post them in the comments section here and we'll feed them to Mike on Monday. Hopefully this is the first of many guest appearances as OTP moves forward.

Say Again? Another UConn-Syracuse Moment?

I joked here yesterday that I hoped Jim Calhoun didn't trip over a Syraucse player during the postgame handshakes last night, a little reference to the Geno Aureimma-Nicole Michael incident last month.

But, sure enough, Calhoun did get into it last night with a Syracuse player, Paul Harris, in the second half of UConn's 63-49 victory. Mike Anthony recaps the exchange in today's Courant, noting that beyond a few words, the incident hardly rose to the level of animosity that Geno's did. Donna Ditota also blogged the weird moment for the Syracuse Post-Standard. In fact, the back-and-forth was the topic of a laughter-filled exchange between Calhoun and Syracuse coach (and friend) Jim Boeheim during postgame handshakes.

Throw in the last-minute quarterback switcheroo at the Carrier Dome in November and that completes the UConn-Syracuse showmanship trifecta for 2008-09.

Red Sox Starting Five

As I wrote in today's Courant, these are the five issues the team must address as spring training begins. The first, the health of David Ortiz and Mike Lowell, is paramount, and manager Terry Francona addressed the status of the two in Fort Myers Wednesday. Here's the complete list of five questions as camp opens:

1. The Red Sox must be sure Mike Lowell (hip) and David Ortiz (wrist) are prepared for a long season, even if it means holding them back a bit in March. Even with MVP winner Dustin Pedroia, MVP candidate Kevin Youkilis and a full season of Jason Bay, there is little margin for error in this offense.

2. With two years and $18 million left on his contract, Julio Lugo enters camp as the de facto starter at shortstop. Still, after an underwhelming first four months of 2008, before a quad injury ended his season, Lugo's hold on the job is as shaky as his throws to first base. Rookie Jed Lowrie has been groomed for the job. Don't expect Lugo to take a demotion quietly.

3. Fingers across New England are crossed — or eyes covered — at the prospect of another season with Jason Varitek behind the plate. With Varitek turning 37 in April, there is deep concern that his anemic 2008 (.220, 13 homers, 43 RBI) was no accident. Even if Varitek is Captain Comeback, the Red Sox must address their needs for 2010 before 2009 is over.

4. The starters appear set, with John Smoltz (recovering from shoulder surgery) waiting in the wings for a second-half boost. Jonathan Papelbon has his contract and his fastball, and that bodes well for the ninth inning. The issue, as always, is how to bridge the gap. Manny Delcarmen is inconsistent and Hideki Okajima is a one-pitch pony. Will newcomer Ramon Ramirez, acquired in the Coco Crisp trade, be the setup X-factor? Or will rookie Justin Masterson make all the questions moot by picking up where he left off in October?

5. The forgotten man in Red Sox camp is righthander Clay Buchholz, who flamed out after two months last season and needed time in the Arizona Fall League to find his mojo again. Buchholz is mentioned more as a trade piece than a piece of the 2009 rotation, but he still has the stuff to make a major impact. This figures to be his make-or-break spring as a Red Sox.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Send In Those Spring Training Questions

In exactly one week from the writing of this post, I will be riding a jet plane to Fort Myers for a week of hot PFP* action. Between now and then, feel free to write in any Red Sox-related questions and I will do my best to provide the answers, live from the minor league complex. Look forward to bringing you my insights (and hopefully photos) over what should be a busy week of workouts. I will also be freelancing a handful of Red Sox stories for the Courant during my stay, so keep an eye out for those, as well.

*-PFP (pitcher fielding practice)

UConn-Syracuse Tonight

The big battle comes Monday, when Pittsburgh arrives in Hartford for a possible 1-2 matchup. But for now, our old friends from Syracuse, ranked 23rd in the country, takes on UConn at Gampel Pavilion tonight at 7 p.m. (ESPN). Here's hoping Jim Calhoun doesn't trip over any Syacuse players in the handshake line.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Letterman's A-List

Tremendous stuff from the home office last night.

I like No. 7 the best.

10. "Hey, it's Mark McGwire. Want to get together this week and not talk about the past?"

9. "Joe Torre here -- thanks for helping book sales"

8. "Could you find a steroid that keeps you from choking in the playoffs?"

7. "Are you worried this will taint all the championships you didn't win?"

6. "It's Bernie Madoff. Nice try but I'm still the most hated man in New York"

5. "Michael Phelps here. Got any snacks?"

4. "This is Sammy Sosa. Just pretend you don't speak English"

3. "Michael Phelps again. Did I call you or did you call me?"

2. "Hey, it's Rod Blagojevich -- I'll say you're innocent, if you say I am"

1. "It's Madonna. You got a phone number for Jeter?"

Don't Blame Me

This is not some "Curse of the Jeffgo" thing happening here. I loved my time at Northeastern. I was rooting for the Huskies last night. Sure, it's now 21 years and counting since they last won a Beanpot, keeping my place in NU history intact, but don't get any ideas.

Fear The Couric!

Whether it’s fastballs in October, or softballs in February, Alex Rodriguez simply cannot come through in the clutch. A-Rod “came clean” Monday, admitting that, yes, he did take performance-enhancing substances between 2001-03 with the Rangers.

And if all you saw or heard yesterday were the excerpts of his ESPN interview with Peter Gammons, you probably were willing to give A-Rod a pat on the back and a job-well-done for admitting his mistake.

But if you actually tuned in for the extended-play version of the interview, you had to wonder if A-Rod would have been better off not saying anything.

Forget for a moment the pretzel-like twists in the logic of his tale: That he didn’t know exactly what it was he took; that he was experimenting (for three years); the implied references to GNC, as if he had ingested some over-the-counter product by mistake; the assertion that he didn’t know whether or not he had actually failed the 2003 test, then convincing himself he really hadn’t.

Even if you watched his interview with the mute button, A-Rod’s fibbing was self-evident. Nobody goes to the nose that often, except maybe Roger Clemens. Nobody telling the truth needs to drink that much water. What A-Rod was doing was water-hoarding, and it was torture to watch.

But I’m starting think that A-Rod is about the least-interesting player in this drama. Here are my five nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

Katie Couric. Okay, this is Best Supporting Actress, but wow, has anyone had a better six months than Couric? First Sarah Palin, now A-Rod. Who said she couldn’t deliver the tough interview? If I had something to hide, she’s the last person I’d let through my door, other than Selena Roberts. Couric’s questions to Palin last September, hardly of the gotcha variety, provided Barack Obama the last crunching block to clear his path to the end zone. Now, her elicitation from A-Rod in 2007 that he never used, and was never tempted to use, PEDs has blown up in his face, forcing him into his nose-wiping, the dog-ate-my-memory performance Monday.

Jose Canseco and Tom Boswell. With each new name, Canseco looks more and more vindicated for his whistle-blowing books. Say what you want about the unscrupulous way Canseco has gone about his campaign, but without his revelations, the movement toward finally cleaning up the sport would probably still be languishing. The irony is that baseball could have used Canseco as motivation to clean its house 20 years ago, which makes me wonder what Boswell is thinking today. The brilliant Washington Post baseball writer broke the first steroids story back in 1988, when he accused Canseco of being a “conspicuous” steroid user, and fans at Fenway Park chanted “Steroids!” at Canseco throughout the first two games of the 1988 ALCS. But baseball and its union didn’t hear the message, and allowed Canseco to drive the point home in a much messier way almost 20 years later.

Gene Orza. I’m taking April 3 in the “Gene Orza resigns from the Union” pool. If possible, Orza is coming out of this tale looking far worse than A-Rod, with the allegations of 2004 test-tipping and his role in A-Rod’s fanciful tale Monday. Red Sox fans should be thanking Orza a thousand times over for blocking the final door to the A-Rod trade in 2003. John Henry and Larry Luchhino must be doing handstands and backflips over their remarkable luck that the MLBPA scuttled that trade at the last minute.

Peter Gammons. He’s taking a lot of heat today for conducting a soft interview Monday night, but let’s be fair. He lacked home-court advantage – anytime they break out the soft lighting, you know it’s not Woodward and Bernstein time – and probably had certain stipulations placed upon him. And, sure, he sounded more than fawning in his post-interview wrap-up. But Gammons did the one thing he needed to do: He got A-Rod to talk, and he got A-Rod to dig his own grave by just letting him talk. That was more than enough to turn the “A-pology” into more “A-Fraud.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

Let's Go Huskies! (No, the other ones)

I wonder what Jack Grinold will be doing at 5 p.m. tonight? I know what he won't be doing: Watching his Northeastern hockey team playing in the consolation game of the Beanpot Tournament.

For years and years (and years), Grinold, the esteemed associate director of athletics and former sports information director at NU, was nicknamed "5 o'clock Jack." That's because the Huskies always played in that 5 p.m. game on the second Monday in February, having lost the Beanpot first-round game at the Boston/TD Banknorth Garden the Monday before.

Not this year. Not tonight. The Huskies play at 8 p.m. (NESN) against top-ranked -- and top-despised on Huntington Ave -- Boston University in the Beanpot championship game. It's been 21 years since Northeastern last hoisted the trophy. Because of that, I actually hold a special place in Northeastern sports history -- I am the last writer at the Northeastern News to write about a Huskies Beanpot title.

In 1988, I was a freshman at Northeastern, hoping to launch a career in sports journalism. Along with good friends Jon Tapper and Kevin Hayes, I joined the NU News staff late in 1987 and assumed the hockey beat in December. The Northeastern hockey team had enjoyed some Beanpot success in the 1980s under coach Fern Flaman, but with players such as BC's Brian Leetch and Craig Janney off-campus with the U.S. Olympic hockey team, the Huskies dominated the Boston hockey scene in 1988.

Led by Kevin Heffernan and goalie Bruce Racine, who later had a cup of coffee with the St. Louis Blues, the Huskies not only won the Beanpot by beating BU, they also took the Hockey East title at the Boston Garden, knocking off New England powerhouse Maine. Those three games proved the only three I ever got to cover at the old Garden, a thrill for a sportswriter of any age, let alone an 18-year-old.

It's still the only time in school history the Huskies won both titles in the same season. Could 2009 be second? It all starts at 8 p.m. tonight.

Not 5.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Help Me Help You

Just wanted to offer a hearty welcome to those of you visiting OuttaThePahk for the first time. Thanks also to my good friend Nick Cafardo of the Globe for his generous shout-out today.

I hope you find this site enjoyable as we continue to get up and running. I also look forward to hearing your feedback and suggestions as to how best make this a site you will return to on a regular basis. Please feel free to comment in this post any ideas for the blog going forward.

With that in mind, I will be attending Red Sox spring training from Feb. 19-24 and look forward to providing insights and interviews with players and coaching staff. If there are questions you would like to me ask or topics to address, let me hear them and I will do my best to answer.

Thanks again for stopping by and hope to see you again soon,

Be Careful What You Wish For, Nation

As Saturday spills into Sunday, I'm still feeling that sizzle in my system that only comes when Big Breaking News happens. The A-Rod Steriod Stunner made WFAN a must-listen on a Saturday afteroon between paint purchases and bank deposits. And oh, the anger of the callers, those title-starved Yankee fans infuriated beyond their limit with their lightning Rod for trouble.

On the other side of the dial, the snickering from Boston was audible all the way in South Windsor. Good ol' Slappy McBluelips. When it comes to schadenfreude, A-Fraud through in the clutch every time.

But every time today I felt a smile start to cross my face, every time I allowed delicious irony of the failed 2003 trade to start sinking in, I felt a shudder. This is not a story to celebrate, not for baseball and not for the Red Sox that now exist only in our mythology.

Karma is a bitch and no Red Sox deed has ever really gone unpunished. There isn't a Red Sox fan alive, at least among those being honest with themselves, who doesn't allow for not just the possibility, but the probability, that at least one of its 2004 heroes met the same fate in the 2003 testing sweep.

A positive test against some '04 players, like fringemen Curtis Leskanic or Pokey Reese, probably wouldn't be enough to sully the otherwise bullet-proof memory of that October. But what if it was Trot Nixon, always voted Most Likely, or Kevin Millar, or even -- current status notwithstanding -- Game 7 hero Johnny Damon?

What if it was Ortiz? Or Mueller? Or Lowe?

What then would we think of the Steal and the Sock and the Sweep? Would it remain untainted? Could it? Should it?

That is one conundrum I admit having no stomach for. I waited too long and invested too much in that eight-game span to have it even so much as smudged by this scandal. So I read and I watch and I listen as A-Rod's tale unfolds. But I do not celebrate. I do not gloat. I will not wish onto another what I would never wish for myself.

Friday, February 6, 2009

You Look Like You Could Use A Good Truck

BREAKING NEWS: President Obama is trying out for the Red Sox. The White House, just moments ago, announced that Obama is visiting Fort Myers on Tuesday, and as anyone who has spent time there knows, if you're not there for the Red Sox, there's really no reason to be there at all.

Maybe the President wants to make sure the Spring Training truck arrives on time. The truck was a late departure from Fenway Park this afternoon, much to the dismay of a fairly decent crowd that braved the chill to get a glimpse of the epic truck-loading. OTP was there as well, and here is our proof. Six weeks until spring? We beg to differ.

Only 59 days until Opening Day

Packing up Johnny Pesky sure was hard.

Wally greets his peeps.

Can't forget Pedroia's ATV!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Celtics-Lakers Go Another Round Tonight

It never gets old. Over all the decades and all the changed names and faces, just saying "Celtics-Lakers tonight" puts a hop in your step. Once again, the two titans square off with home-court advantage for the Finals very much in play, and no one doubts for a moment that these two will meet again in four months.

The Lakers halted the Celtics epic 19-game winning streak the last time in L.A. on Christmas Day. The Celtics are streaking again, and the Lakers, like last June, are without x-factor Andrew Bynum, so look for the Celtics to avenge that loss and send a strong message to their purple and gold friends.

Anytime these teams meet, it conjures up memories of the Bird-Magic era of the 1980s. Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald got their thoughts today on the rivalries' current incarnation. Those classic battles were not limited to the three Finals appearances in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Here's a flashback to three epic regular season battles at the Boston Garden:

Jan. 22, 1986: While the Boston sports scene was captivated by the Patriots' amazing run to Super Bowl XX, the Lakers arrived at the Garden the Wednesday before the Bears' 46-10 rout. The Lakers had an Eason-esque experience themselves, courtesy of the newest addition to the rivalry, Bill Walton.

With the Celtics playing with a hobbled Kevin McHale and Walton foaming at the mouth to test his reniassance season against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the sixth-man extroadinaire went wild, with 11 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots. The Celtics win in a rout, 110-95, and the die was cast for title No. 16, the last for the Celtics until eight months ago.

Dec. 12, 1986: The 1986 season was highlighted by the great winning streak at Boston Garden, which had reached 48 by the time the Lakers arrived for their one-time only appearance in Boston. But in another harbinger of things to come, the Lakers ended the Garden streak with a 117-110 victory. The Lakers would win again in Boston that season, in Game 4 of the Finals on Magic Johnson's "junior junior" sky hook.

The Celtics had technically had their "home" winning streak ended about a week earlier, losing to the Washington Bullets at the Hartford Civic Center (with yours truly in attendance). The Celtics hated making the 100-mile bus ride to Hartford for three games a year, and never more that night in 1986.

Interestingly. about a month before, in an exhibition game the night before Game 1 of the Red Sox-Mets World Series, Bird made that famous over-the-backboard shot against the Rockets at the Civic Center. And he did have the back end of consecutive buzzer beaters in Jnauary, 1985 in Hartford against the Pistons. Couldn't have been that bad.

Dec. 11, 1987: As it happened, this was pretty much the last hurrah for the Bird-Magic rivalry in Boston. A wild back-and-forth affair wasn't decided until the final shot, when Magic heaved a runner from the three-point line on the sideline and banked it in as the buzzer sounded for a 115-114 victory.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

UConn-Rutgers Live Blog

Especially for those of you unable to watch the game, welcome to our third Live Blog in three days, as the UConn women look to continue their undefeated season against their struggling old friends from Rutgers. Can Rutgers put the same kind of scare into UConn that they did to Tennessee a few weeks ago? And if they do, can they sustain it to the end? Not likely on either front.


UConn 75-56, Final: Maya Moore with 24 points and 10 rebounds. Maybe Smokey Swanier was right.

UConn 70-52, 2:28: Kalana Greene with an amazing one-handed putback to cap a season-high 17-point night. What a difference having a healthy, active Greene will be come tournament time.

UConn 66-52, 3:40: The last gasp from Rutgers, who have gone to the '55' press and gotten results. Lorin Dixon is really struggling.

UConn 60-44, 7:17: The Charles cameo is over. Not very productive. Lorin Dixon seeing some action as the game teeters on the verge of garbage time.

10:08: Charles back in.

UConn 57-37, 10:08: The Rutgers offense simply can't compete right now and Maya Moore is heating up for UConn. Moore has seven straight points to put this game on ice with 10 minutes left. It's a 31-12 UConn run since the final two minutes of the first half.

UConn 50-35, 12:26: Tina Charles remains on the bench. She struggled against North Carolina two weeks ago and the funk is continuing.

UConn 48-32, 15:36: Rutgers keeps trying to throw over top of the defense to a cutter along the baseline and Gardler is sitting in the lane waiting for it. That's at least three steals on the same play. This one might be over.

UConn 41-30, 17:37: UConn is forcing turnovers and converting at the other end to break it open. As a lefthander, I am loving watching Tiffany Hayes shoot the three. Great stroke.

UConn 34-28, 20:00: Gardler starts the second half. That's a not-so-veiled shot at Tina Charles.


UConn 34-28, Halftime: UConn ends the half with an 8-3 run. Gardler gave the Huskies about five very active minutes down the stretch, and Geno takes a veiled shot at Tina Charles in praising Gardler's effort in the quickie halftime interview. Charles saw a lot of the bench in the first half.

UConn 26-22, 3:00: Not sure why Rutgers insists on passing the ball to Meghan Gardler each time down the floor, but the Huskies are not complaining.

UConn 24-22, 3:51: The Huskies have gone better than seven minutes with just four points as the pace has really deadened and both teams tightening up their half-court defense. With a little better shot selection by April Sykes, Rutgers might have the lead right now.

UConn 22-20, 6:28: Tiffany Hayes draws another charge and Epiphany Prince has two fouls. Still have a hard time seeing somebody other than Diana Taurasi wearing No. 3. Rutgers keeping this one close so far in a deliberately-played gane.

UConn 22-17, 8:17: We have a Kia Vaughn sighting. Six straight points to close the gap. UConn timeout.

UConn 20-11, 11:02: Renee Montgomery comes alive, hitting a jumper and a three for a personal five-point run. C. Viv takes a timeout.

UConn 15-11, 13:01: Geno takes Moore out, mainly it appears to settle her down. Moore hit a three for a 15-8 lead, but Auriemma gave her the "slow down" motion as she came out of the game with a mask of frustration on her face. 11:58: She's back in. Mental re-set.

UConn 12-8, 15:32: In the summer of 2007, while covering the Sox for a series in Atlanta, I had lunch with Cornell Swanier, Ketia's father. Among the topics was an incoming freshman from the area, Maya Moore. "She's going to make UConn fans forget Diana Taurasi," Swanier told me. I think of that as I watch Moore dominate game after game. She has four points early here tonight.

UConn 10-8, 16:25: End-to-end start to this one, with Kalana Greene very active for the Huskies, a welcome sight after the knee injury a year ago. Tiffany Hayes with a nice three early in her first career start.

8:00 p.m.: I covered my first UConn-Rutgers game 10 years ago last month, when Svetlana Abrosimova hit a runner in the final minute to give UConn a one-point win at the bloodthirsty RAC. It was right after Boston College had blitzed the Huskies, who were without freshman point guard Sue Bird, among others. I distinctly remember Geno Auriemma, standing outside the locker room, airing out the UConn media for what he perceived a major overreaction to that loss in what had been a rough January. No such agita this season.

Oh, Those Scarlet Nights

Before I covered the Red Sox for the Courant, I spent five years on the UConn women's beat, covering the team during the Taurasi Era, its most dynastic championship period. The UConn-Tennessee games were like the 1980s Celtics and Lakers.

UConn-Rutgers? That was like Celtics-Pistons. Forget Nicole Michael playing footsie with Geno Auriemma. Kids stuff compared to Cappie Pondexter and Linda Miles. Rutgers travels to Hartford tonight in a snowstorm, and that conjures memories of the most surreal moments in the history of the game's most-bitter rivalry.

The two snow games, both in the Big East tournament, are remembered for different reasons, but with the same denomenator. The perception of Rutgers as a thuggish team, and the defiant, if not downright eccentric, personality of Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, added so much animosity to the proceedings, the pressure released itself in the oddest of ways.

In 2005, it was Cappiegate at the Civic Center, with Pondexter confonting Geno postgame and Stringer accusing Auriemma of some in-game bad words towards a Rutgers player, which led to a thrilling three-day festival of he-said/he-didn't-say. Aueriemma was cleared by the league and Rutgers eventually apologized, but the anger of UConn fans toward Stringer was never more intense.

Stringer was never more intense than in 2001, during a blizzard so intense, it made the Gampel roof leak. That semifinal night was the most bizarre scene in the 7-plus years I was around the team. That was the night beat writer Matt Eagan and I brought blankets and pillows to the arena, becuase we expected to be stranded inside Gampel because of the growing blizzard.

Then Bill Sehl climbed the roof to fix the leak, even as UConn was destroying Rutgers on the court. The game ended very late, and writers were on serious deadline when Stringer appeared before the microphones.

To the writers shock and dislay (but mostly shock), Stringer chose not to discuss the game, but instead read a letter -- a very long letter -- of ndignant protest against Connecticut Post columnist Chris Ellsbury, who had a month earlier ripped Rutgers for its rough style. Stringer even called out his name, "Is there a Mr. Ellsbury here?" she inquired at the outset, then whipped out the multi-page letter. It was women's basketball's greatest Mike Gundy Moment.

When the two teams met last April, it was for a ticket to the Final Four, and the Huskies prevailed, incident-free. Tonight, only UConn is playing like a Final Four team, and this game figures to lack the usual fire. Too bad. They have a tough act to follow.

Monday, February 2, 2009

UConn-Louisville Live Blog

Welcome to the first UConn Live Blog on outtathepahk. The UConn men are back to No. 1 and are looking for their 10th straight victory. No. 7 Louisville, with its withering pressure, is 9-0 in the conference and have also won nine straight.

Dick Vitale is in the Hall. A great way to start a world without football...


UConn 68-51, FINAL: Another dominant performance, and another big-time win on the road. And to think the Huskies didn't hit a three all night.

UConn 64-49, 4:15: Louisville still has not been able to establish a sustained response. They can't buy a basket. UConn bleeding the clock away with Dyson and Thabeet, who has another double-double with 14 and 10 and 4 blocks. Terrence Williams has a career-high 26, but he's been a one-man show tonight.

UConn 47-31, 14:42: Thabeet. Thabeet. Thabeet. Total domination at both ends. Blocked shot, buzzer-beating wing jumper, blocked shot. Louisville's offense is in sleep mode. So is the crowd at Freedom Hall.


UConn 38-26, Halftime: UConn ends the half with a 15-2 run over the final six minutes. Louisville cannot get anything going in the halfcourt, and without the press to break, the Huskies are dominating inside, with Adrien scoring 15 points snd 5 rebounds. UConn is bigger and better right now.

UConn 28-26, 3:48: Both defenses are living up to their billing so far. Louisville is making UConn look very shaky on the perimeter when they're able to pressure, but because UConn has shut down the Louisville offense in the halfcourt, owning the paint, the Cardinals can't get into their press often enough to make it pay off.

UConn 28-24, 5:34: Jeff Adrien is starting to dominate this game, following up with a cleanup rebound on a fastbreak for a 3-point play. He has 11 points.

Louisville, 22-21: 6:48: And back and forth we go. Louisville is finally putting offense at the end of its swarming defense and Williams continues to be a force. But the fouls are starting to mount for Louisville. Austrie draws No. 2 on Samuels.

UConn 17-14, 10:55: UConn on an 8-0 run to re-take the lead. The Huskies are starting to get their transition game in gear and have turned up their own defense a notch. Even when the press has forced a UConn turnover, the Huskies have bottled up the Louisville break and forced turnovers and outside shots that aren't falling.

Louisville 14-11, 14:24: UConn looks a little wobbly against the full-court press on a pair of trips up the floor, but the second high-wire act, with three near turnovers, ends with another Adrien basket. The pace is picking up considerably now. 30 NBA scouts on hand per ESPN. Big time stuff tonight.

UConn 5-4: 17:29: Pitino leaves Williams in with two fouls, and Williams hits a three. But this is dangerous territory for Williams.

Louisville 4-2, 17:32 left: Louisville is expected to press the Huskies extensively, but not yet. The Cards drop into a zone on it's second defensive possession. UConn misses a long three, but exploits their inside advantage with an offensive rebound and foul againsat Adrien. At the other end, Stanley Robinson has two fouls in two minutes, as Terrence Williams is dominating.

UConn-Louisville Live Blog tonight

Only a matter of time until the AP men's poll is released and UConn is the new No. 1. But there's no time to bask in the glow. The Huskies have another No. 1 in their sights, a chance to edge closer to first place in the Big East. They go after Louisville, one of the two remaining undefeateds in the conference, at 7 p.m. tonight on ESPN's Big Monday.

Check back at gametime for our first of two UConn live blogs this week, with the UConn-Rutgers women's clash coming up Tuesday.

Upon Further Review ... Bad Job

So I'm watching ESPN post-game and there has been no discussion -- none, nada -- about the lack of review on the final play of the game. I see the highlight of it. I see Warner's arm moving foward, getting hit, still moving forward after the contact and the ball still in his possession, then the ball coming out as the arm continues going forward. And that was not worthy of a legitimate review? Even worse, no serious discussion of whether there should have been a review? Seriously?

Not sure what it is about Pittsburgh, but there was that truly bizarre scene at the end of the San Diego game during the regular season, when a meaningless last-play TD was overruled by the booth, without any real evidence for an overturn. It didn't affect the outcome of the game, but it sure messed with the heads of those who bet on it.

Now we get this fiasco on the most significant play of the season, in what was shaping up as the most incredible finish in the league's history. Maybe it's time to rid ourselves of the "booth review" and let the coaches have a challenge in the final two minutes.

Hey, maybe they wouldn't have changed Sunday's call, anyway. But without due process, we are left with a lingering doubt, instead of a lasting memory. And that's a shame.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII Live Blog

Hello from the less-than-frozen tundra of Boston's North End, where yours truly and his crew are setting up the chicken tenders, chili, chips and veggies for the Super Feast. We are here to provide our own special commentary on today's on-field action, as well as a word (or two) on our sponsors. This is the first live blog here at outtathepahk, and what better way to start than with the most anticipated Super Bowl matchup since ... um, never mind.

10:09 p.m.: Wait, what? That's it? His arm wasn't going forward? This game did not deserve that ending. How that didn't warrant a booth review is beyond me. The Cardinals deserved better. So did we.

10:00 p.m.: And Santonio Holmes answers back for Pittsburgh! An MVP performance ends with what might be the winning score. But with 35 seconds left and 2 timeouts, can the Cardinals be counted out? And can we start the conversation about where this game ranks among the most exciting ever played?

9:50 p.m.: All I've ever wanted in my life as a football fan is a Super Bowl overtime. C'mon Steelers, give it to me right here.

9:48 p.m.: Larry Fitzgerald!!!

9:44 p.m.: What a turn of events! Instead of a potential game-clinching catch, it's a safety and a 20-16 game. The Cardinals will get the ball again with 2:58 left. Incredible!

9:41 p.m.: James Harrison, what are you thinking? Did that 100-yard run suck out all the oxygen to your brain? The Steelers are incredibly lucky that was a change-of-possession penalty. Now the Cardinals have one more defensive play to force a punt from the endzone with plenty of time left to pull the upset.

9:32 p.m.: Well, here we go. Cardinals get the ball back at their own 25 with 5:30 to play, down by 6. The Cardinals ripped through the Steel Curtain last drive. Can they do it one more time and steal this game?

9:26 p.m.: Touchdown, Larry Fitzgerald! The Cards are still alive. Could have used Hightower scoring on the play before, but that's just me.

9:21 p.m.: Spoke too soon! We have a game as the Cardinals are going right down the field, inside the Pittsburgh 5-yard line. Larry Fitzgerald is coming to life when the Cardinals need him most.

9:11 p.m.: Not sure which has been more underwhelming, the game or the commercials.

8:59 p.m.. Kudos to you, and I don't just say that because I'm unemployed.

8:56 p.m.: Adrian Wilson owes his defensive mates big time. Instead of putting the game away, the Steelers still only get three points for a 20-7 lead.

8:53 p.m.: Adrian Wilson just lost the game for the Cardinals. So much for honoring Pat Tillman.

8:47 p.m.: Cardinals killing themselves with stupid penalties here in the third quarter. Pittsburgh could put the dagger in with this drive.

8:32 p.m.: We have our answer. The Cards are sticking to the gameplan and running hard with Edge, instead of panicking. If they can convert this opening drive into points, we could have an exciting second half.

8:29 p.m.: So where do the Cardinals go from here? Do they try opening up the offense and take shots downfield to get back in this quickly, or does that play right into Pittsburgh's hands. Tough spot for Kurt Warner to be in.

8:07 p.m.: I put the chicken fingers down!

7:58 p.m.: Am I like everyone else who doesn't have the 3-D glasses, and now has a splitting headache?

7:51 p.m.: Sorry Marcus Allen and John Riggins (and anybody else), James Harrison just made the greatest run in Super Bowl history. And considering the guy practically died doing it, it will be a crime if they take this touchdown away. What a blow to the Cardinals. Instead of leading at the half, they're down 17-7. Biggest single play in Super Bowl history? Just might be.

7:45 p.m.: Halftime analysis from the Pirate ship? If they were in Tampa's Spaceship, that would be much more impressive.

7:41 p.m.: Game-breaker! Cardinals have to cash this in before the half.

7:22 p.m.: For whatever reason, Warner has nearly tripped over his offensive lineman at least once in every game this postseason. Didn't hurt them on that play, needless to say.

7:19 p.m.: If "Holding penalty when your guy runs the ball" was a fantasy category, Hightower would be singlehandedly winning this thing for me.

7:10 p.m.: Note to the Arizona Cardinals: I strongly suggest you score soon.

7:00 p.m.: One thing I'm noticing from NBC that I don't like: After ever play, the "Super Bowl XLIII" bar at the bottom of the screen flips with a yellow background. I keep thinking there's a flag coming on every play.

6:55 p.m.: NO NO NO NO CATCH IT NATE!!!

6:49 p.m.: Do the Cardinals realize Polamalu isn't on the field? Two running plays into the line while the super safety is sitting. Missed opportunity right there.

6:44 p.m.: If you had Doritos in the "First funny commercial" pool ... that's a YES!

6:38 p.m.: Good challenge here by Arizona. In real time, it didn't look like Ben got in before his knee hit the ground. ... and they are right. Pittsburgh kicks the field goal. I would have gone for it from one foot away.

6:29 p.m.: Whoa, time out. Did we just get an F. Scott Fitzgerald reference? No relation to Larry, I assume.

6:28 p.m.: Kevin Millar plays for the Steelers, too? No wonder Schilling loves them.

6:18 p.m.: The Hudson Hero pilot is introduced before the game. He's taking the bus home.

6:09 p.m.: Bartolo Colon plays lineman for the Steelers? That's certainly the right position.

5:49 p.m.: Big Ben says no one remembers who finishes second in the Super Bowl. Chiefs, Raiders, Colts, Vikings, Cowboys, Dolphins, Redskins, Vikings, Vikings, Cowboys, Vikings, Broncos, Cowboys, Rams, Eagles, Bengals, Dolphins, Redskins, Dolphins, Pats, Broncos, Broncos, Bengals, Broncos, Bills, Bills, Bills, Bills, Chargers, Steelers, Pats, Packers, Falcons, Titans, Giants, Rams, Raiders, Panthers, Eagles, Seahawks, Bears, Pats.

5:36 p.m.: If you weren't rooting for Larry Fitzgerald before, you are now.

5:19 p.m.: A first in U.S. history: The President of the United States just used the term, "shout-out."

5:10 p.m.: So hoping that Obama answered Lauer's question about losing sleep at night by screaming, "We're Dooooooomed!" ... and now the audio feed goes out. Ouch!

5:03 p.m.: Matt Millen is commentating on the Super Bowl for NBC. Kinda like having John Edwards doing analysis of the presidential election.

4:44 p.m.: NBC just replayed the David Tyree play from last year's Super Bowl, a play that remains unbelievable, even a full year later. Watching the game last year at the Fours, the crowd was shocked into silence when Manning escaped the rush and Tyree cradled the ball on his helmet. The only one not silent was me ... and it nearly got me killed.

Now, growing up in West Hartford, CT, I was a Patriots fan first, but I also had room in my heart for the NFC Giants, so Super Bowl XLII presented an unusual neutral scenario for me, rooting more for a historic finish, win or lose for the undefeated Pats. Also complicating matters was the aforementioned fantasy contest. Because of the rules at the time, with a Giants victory I would be in prime position for the $5,000 first prize.

For 58 minutes, I kept that little secret to myself, knowing I was in an extreme rooting minority. Then the ball landed in Tyree's hands, and I forgot where I was. While the gathered crowd let out a heavy moan, I suddenly exclaimed to my girlfriend, "Why aren't they calling time out!"

Wrong question. Dagger-like eyes shot in my direction. "Why aren't who calling timeout?" one woman snarled at me. "Who exactly are you rooting for?" Then the woman turned on my girlfriend, "How dare you bring a Giants fan into my bar!"

Swallowing hard, I went back into my cone of slilence, celebrating quietly as Plaxico Burress hauled in the winning score. Alas, though I escaped the Fours alive, I did not win the $5,000 prize, settling for $75. Frankly, it wasn't worth it.

4:23 p.m.: Kickoff is still two hours away, but it's never too soon to break down the fantasy implications of today's game. Having registered at for its playoff fantasy contest (first prize: $2,500), the outtathepahk franchise is currently ranked No. 47 with 308 points.

The nine-player lineup looks like this. Players were selected under a salary cap of $330, with 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE, 1 K, 1 D and 1 flex.

QB -- Kurt Warner
RB -- Willie Parker, Tim Hightower
WR -- Larry Fitzgerald, Nate Washington
TE -- Heath Miller
K -- Neil Rackers
D -- Pittsburgh
Flex -- Ben Roethlisberger

Trailing the leader by 76, finishing first is pretty much outtathequestion, but we can still finish in the money with a big day, needing to make up just 14 points for a minimum of $50. Hightower and Washington hold the key.