by Trevor Whenham - 04/12/2006
This column will regularly look at three teams or players that are turning heads for their impressive performance on or off the field, and three more that are sinking into a pit of despair.
Josh Beckett - This is one Texan who appears to prefer the northern climate. He left the Marlins for a better chance to win (and a wheelbarrow full of money) in Boston. He allowed one run in his first game against Texas. The first inning of his second game against Toronto was sketchy with 3 walks, including one that sent a run home, and 36 pitches, but he got it under control and went six more scoreless innings. After two starts he is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA. He may cool down once the other teams in the American League get a chance to see him once, but he's shown before that he's the real deal. For now the Red Sox are worth more than a passing look every time he takes the mound.
Cleveland Indians - The Indians have won six in a row and they are mashing it out of the park. It took Travis Hafner until the middle of May last year to hit his fifth homer. He made it to that mark in seven games this year. He's leading a batting parade that is mowing down the opposition. The pitching staff is more than holding its own, too. Starters Jason Johnson and Jake Westbrook have been freaky so far, and their best pitcher, the hefty C.C. Sabathia, is injured. If the Tribe can keep it together until his return, they will be dangerous. They have won six in a row and have a fairly soft schedule for the next two weeks or so. They are definitely worth a look.
Calgary Flames - With the NHL playoffs about to start, bettors will want to identify the teams on the rise. There are obvious choices, like Detroit, that will win with ease in the first round, but there is no value there. You need a team that is quietly moving into top form. Look no further than the Flames. I say that as someone who watches almost all of their games. Three weeks ago I had almost completely written this team off. They came off a terrible road trip and were bitten by the injury bug. Since then they've taken 13 of 16 possible points and looked very good doing it. They have struggled offensively (to say the least) all season, outscoring only three teams in the league, but the players are finally warming up. Miikka Kiprusoff is the best goaltender in the league right now and he is on fire. Darryl Sutter coached this team to the Stanley Cup finals last time around. They are playing with that same hunger and intensity right now, and they are much more talented. They will present value, especially if they draw San Jose in the first round. Definitely worth a look.
Houston Rockets - No team with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming should be as bad as the Rockets are. Both average more than 22 a game, but that has translated into a dismal last place showing. Now, to make matters worse, Yao has broken his foot and could miss up to six months. Mercifully for the team and the fans, the season is about to come to an ugly end and the housecleaning can begin. There are still four games left, though, and the Rockets almost certainly will play badly in all of them. Why would they change now?
Brett Favre - The guy is unquestionably one of the best of all time and I couldn't respect his career more. How did it get to this, though? He has definitely earned the right to decide his fate, but he shouldn't have turned it into the circus that it has become. The national media is constantly speculating on what he will do and he has found several ways to make the situation a public relations disaster. I am sure that I'm far from the only one that doesn't care what his decision is any more. I just want the whole thing to go away. Besides, the team was bad with him last year and they have done little to improve, so they are going to be bad this year. With him or without him. I think the other team and the under will look attractive in a lot of Pack games this year.
NBA East playoffs first round - There has probably been a first round that has been worse that this one is shaping up to be, but I don't remember it. The top four teams - Detroit, Miami, New Jersey and Cleveland - are really good. They've combined to win 31 of their last 40, and four of the losses came from Miami. The bottom four, on the other hand, are far from good. It will be made up from among Washington, Indiana, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chicago. Of those five, only Washington is above .500, and they only eclipse that mark by one game. What does that all mean? The first round will be completely unwatchable. Absolutely without merit. The match-ups will all be so one-sided that the only interesting bet may be whether all four top teams can sweep. That's far more likely than it should be.