What a difference a day makes. Just yesterday, I was here writing about the boost the Braves bullpen would get from the return of John Smoltz. Well 24 hours later, the Braves blew a 2-run ninth inning lead just hours after it was announced that Smoltz was done for the season with lingering shoulder issues. The interesting thing about Smoltz’s announcement of surgery is that he still plans to pitch next season. Although we do not know yet whether Smoltz meant as a starter or a reliever, rehab from a third major surgery as a 41-year-old will be a major feat. But never say never when it comes to Smoltz, who has been this generation’s symbol of pitching utility and is the only pitcher of all-time with 200 or more wins and 150 or more saves.

For the Braves, if Mike Gonzales can indeed come back from the Disabled List and be the dominant pitcher he was two seasons ago, then Atlanta still has a strong bullpen with Gonzales and Rafael Soriano serving as anchors. But there is no question Bobby Cox would have loved Smoltz, who is arguably the most clutch pitcher of all-time, having won the most postseason games in MLB history.

LSU vs. UC-Irvine pre:

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The College Baseball postseason field has been trimmed from 64 to 16 and will be trimmed to 8 after this weekend. I showed you all the brackets yesterday, but today I will focus on the series we Louisianans are most interested in, the LSU/UC Irvine matchup.

For LSU to win this series, they must to the following things:
1. Strike early- UC Irvine is not a team capable of having many three and four run innings, so if LSU can keep the Anteaters on their heels from the beginning of the contest, LSU pitchers will be able to rear back throw strikes and force UC-Irvine’s hitters to be sluggers, something they may not be capable of being.
2. Hold runners- The one thing LSU did not do very well in the Regionals was holding runners at first base, allowing a few uncontested stolen bases. While this sounds like such a small thing, against a team like Irvine, it will be of much more importance, because the Anteaters are a station-to-station baseball team and if LSU can clog the pipeline from base-to-base, the Anteater offense may be crippled.
3. Patient hitting- The Anteaters have a phenomenal pitching staff but they do not have the most deep bullpen. LSU hitters should make an effort to work the counts and try to run up the pitch counts of the UC-Irvine starters and then try to tee off in the mid-to-late innings on a worn out staff.

Ocho backs down:

In NFL news, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson said yesterday that he will retract his previous statements and will report to the Bengals mini camps and training camps to prepare for the season. Johnson had previously demanded a trade from the Bengals and went on the record as to saying that he would never play in Cincinnati again because of a broken relationship with head coach Marvin Lewis.

But, Mr. Johnson, I have a message for you: Shut Up! I am all for people who put their money where their mouths are. Terrell Owens is my favorite player in the NFL, because he does just that. But Johnson is a sinking ship. Instead of whining and complaining about how miserable it is to be making 10 million dollars a year, Mr. Johnson, why don’t you do something you didn’t do the past two seasons: be the best receiver on your team, because TJ Houshmandzadeh has easily surpassed you in that.

Lakers/Celtics Game 1 Tonight:

I have broken down the Finals matchups throughout the week and alas the series begins today. I gave check-marks to the Lakers at point guard, shooting guard and center with the Celtics getting check marks at small forward and power forward.

But where the series will be won and lost is on the benches. The Lakers’ main bench players are all inexperienced, but with youth comes great energy and that has been the difference in several playoff games this season. The Celtics, on the other hand, have a much more experienced bench with more championship experience, but on the reverse side, they look old at times and their lack of speed has created defensive handicaps.

While I think the Lakers’ bench has a far larger mark of uncertainty than the Celtics’ does, I give a slight edge to the Lakers, because I feel their energy will be too much for the Celtics to handle.

At the end of the day, I think the Lakers win the series in 6 games for the following reasons:
1. The best player normally wins- Historically in the finals, the team with the best player in the series comes out on top. Now, with that said, last year in the Finals, the Cavs had the best player and were swept, but these Lakers are not those Cavs and I think Kobe’s supporting cast will keep him close for three quarters. At that time, the second best closer in the history of the NBA will take over and seal the four wins necessary for the Lakers.
2. Point guard play- I take nothing away from Rajon Rondo, because he has been terrific throughout the postseason, but on the grandest stage and with all of the chips on the table, I see the crafty Fisher hitting more big shots and making more big stops on the defensive end of the floor to create a big-time leadership edge for the Lakers. At the end of the day, I think all of the Lakers, including Kobe Bryant trust Fisher. I do not know if the same can be said for the Celtics with Rondo in the heat of a critical NBA Finals game.
3. Jackson trumps all- Coaches do not normally win individual games in the NBA, but in a series of two teams so evenly matched, a huge edge goes to the Lakers on the bench where Phil Jackson has won double the amount of championships as Doc Rivers has won playoff series. Jackson’s team always play loose and free and historically his way works and has been no exception this year as the Lakers are the only team to win a road game in every playoff series this year.

So, I like the Lakers in 6 overall.

But as far as tonight, I like the Celtics in a close one with Kevin Garnett being the X-Factor.

Celtics 93
Lakers 86

That’s all for me today. Tomorrow, I will make College baseball picks, give UC Irvine’s keys to victory and will break down Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Happy Thursday,

Casey

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