Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The Minnesota Twins opened the 2013 season by winning their first home series and their first series on the road, taking two of three games against the Detroit Tigers at home and two of three in Baltimore over the weekend. Minnesota lost at Kansas City Monday. Twins pitching has been impressive in the 4-3 start. What else, good or bad, have you noted?
-Dorr: The main thing, of course, has been the pitching. The starters have been pretty good and the relievers, except for the loss in Baltimore, have also been good. Kevin Correia could be 2-0 and he’s 0-1. Nobody knew what to expect from the starters and the caution here is that the season is only seven games old. I heard a sports guy who has been on a Twin Cities station for a long time say Sunday afternoon that certain teams were either out of the race or in the race. You can’t accurately make that assessment after one week of play. The Minnesota wins have come with very little help from the top three guys in the order – Aaron Hicks, Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham – so the good start is even more impressive. If the Twins weren’t winning I would think the manager would sit Hicks down since he is not hitting at all and is an unproven commodity. But, just like you can’t judge a team’s season after only seven games, Hicks needs more at-bats for the Twins to evaluate whether or not they have brought him up too soon. So far the team has been finding a way to win and that’s usually the mark of a good team. They’re 3-0 in one-run games. Last year Baltimore, a surprise team, won 29 one-run games, something they likely won’t do this year. Oh, by the way, the Twins looked like the ghosts of seasons past on Monday, making two base-running mistakes and failing to hit with men on base as they blew a 1-0 lead in the 8th and lost 3-1 in Kansas City. And Hicks fell to .067. Not many rookies at 2 for 30 would be kept in the lineup.
-Marxhausen: The Twins have started at a solid pace, showing that they can hang with clubs right out of the gate. From the batting perspective, there has been contribution from multiple players besides the usual Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham. Pedro Florimon, Chris Parmalee and Trevor Plouffe have been hitting well. In a team perspective though, Aaron Hicks, Brian Dozier and Ryan Doumit need to step up in the bottom and top of the order to help contribute. Although the bullpen was key in the losses that the Twins experienced thus far, it has also been the key in the wins. Out of the four victories, only one was from a starting pitcher (Mike Pelfrey). The other three were from Glen Perkins, Josh Roenicke and Anthony Swarzak. The Twins don’t have a shut-down ace who can come in and dominate They are going to need help from the batting order day-in and day-out to keep up the winning ways.
-Larson: As Luther states, it’s too early to judge where a team will be a month from now. The 4-2 start had to be a relief for Twins management, which was likely crossing its fingers, hopping the team wouldn’t fall flat on its face coming out of the gate. The Twins need to be interesting if they’re going to hold people’s attention, and so far they have been. They won series against two teams that figure to be contenders. They’ve showed they can come from behind. They’ve showed they can get some quality innings from their starting pitchers. Let’s see what happens when the starting pitchers make their second, third and fourth starts.
-Johnson: The Twins have gotten off to an impressive start. The big question coming into the season was starting pitching and they have done an exceptional job through the first week. In fact, if you could eliminate just one bad inning in each of the starts, they have been near perfect. If they can put up a 4-2 record with the absence of their leadoff hitter Aaron Hicks (2 for his first 30 with 13 strikeouts), what can they do when he starts to get on base?
•Question: After being rejected by or missing out on several candidates, including former Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, the University of Minnesota and athletic director Norwood Teague hired 30-year-old Richard Pitino as head basketball coach. Pitino, who takes over for the fired Tubby Smith, has one year of head coaching experience, taking Florida International to an 18-14 record this past season. He is the son of highly successful current Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Reaction to the hiring has been positive and negative. What are your thoughts?
-Dorr: It’s an unmitigated disaster. Since the day Norwood Teague was hired I’ve had the impression that he appears too slick to have the AD job at Minnesota. And it’s obvious he thought he could bring a “name” coach to Minnesota after he fired Tubby Smith. I have no idea if Pitino will do the job. Like anyone else, he should get a chance to prove himself. But Teague’s handling of the situation has been beyond brutal. And now here we go again, with a coach in a major sport at the U of M in the mode of installing his system, etc. Will the players coming back stick around? More important, can Pitino bring in players to make the team competitive. And, can he coach?
-Marxhausen: Richard Pitino has a lot to offer the University of Minnesota basketball program. He is a young face and has plenty of knowledge as a coach. As long as he can sell the University of Minnesota to his recruits there shouldn’t be a problem for him bringing in talented players. His youthfulness will help him bond with players and help him explain his style of basketball. Like Louisville’s style of play, Richard Pitino is going to press and force turnovers on defense that leads to plays on offense. At Florida International, Pitino helped bring his team up 123 spots to be ranked fifth in turnover percentage. There is a lot to be excited for with this new coach and I think the Gopher fans are going to enjoy watching him at the helm next year.
-Larson: Are fans and recruits going to rally around a coach who looks younger than the kid at Teals who carried my groceries to the car Saturday? Oops, that high school sophomore looked older than Pitino! Should we judge Pitino on his age and one season of Division I head coaching at a school that really doesn’t matter when we’re talking Big Ten level basketball? YES! Young coaches are given a chance to prove themselves at schools like Florida International….not Minnesota! Florida International was 18-14 this season. So what? Some have said that Rick Pitino might be able to steer some quality recruits Richard Pitino’s way when the roster gets loaded up at Louisville. Right. I’m sure players who have the option of Florida, Kentucky, Indiana, etc., are going to scurry to Minnesota as soon as the bucket is full at Louisville. The younger Pitino has displayed much excitement and said all the right things since taking the Gopher job. But, are many Minnesota fans ready for a three-, or four-, or five-year wait? Washington Redskins/LA Rams coach George Allen once said, “the future is now!” Minnesota needed a “now” coach.
-Johnson: Coming from a strong family in coaching basketball I would suspect Pitino knows the ins and outs of handling a big Division I program. If not, he is a phone call away from ol’ papa, who has demonstrated a highly successful career. From the little I know of Pitino, his energy and poise thus far seems to be a good change for the Gophers.
•Question: Louisville defeated Michigan 82-76 in the NCAA men’s basketball finals Monday. What are your thoughts on the 2013 champs and the tournament overall?
-Dorr: By and large, it was an interesting tournament. I will admit I watched more baseball Monday night than I did basketball but there were some entertaining moments. Louisville, coming back from a 12-point deficit, showed it was the better team that night. While admitting that I wanted Michigan to win, I saw two horrible calls by the officials. One was actually a non-call when they missed an easy goal-tending call on Louisville in the first half that robbed Michigan of a basket, and then the foul called on Trey Burke when he made a great block late in the game gave Louisville two points. It would be nice if a school other than a “name” school could win the tournament.
-Marxhausen: The championship game was a competitive game from start to finish. Michigan took control early in the first half with back-up point guard Spike Albrecht leading the way, including hitting four-of-four three-pointers and finishing the half with 17 points. Luke Hancock of Louisville hit four three-pointers himself, leading Louisville on a 14-3 run to finish the half and pull within one point. After picking up two quick fouls in the first half, Trey Burke exploded in the second half, racking up 24 points, but that was not enough as Louisville put pressure on the ball and played strong defense, forcing key turnovers. Louisville put some amazing games together and really dominated its way to the Final Four. For Michigan, the tournament was a long, hard battle but it showed up every game. Another tournament is over and this one lived up to many expectations. There were upsets and come-from-behind victories. There was drama and late-game heroics. This tournament was spectacular and one for the books.
-Larson: The best college basketball game I watched all season was the one played Monday night for the NCAA title. The action was so constant and furious that it often looked like there were 15-16 players on the floor, not 10. Sometimes the screen was a blur of white and maize. Even though Michigan scored 72 points, credit Louisville’s full-court pressure defense for being the big difference. How can you double-team (sometimes triple-team) the guy with the ball and still cover the other four players? The Cardinals did. If the young Richard Pitino can bring that kind of defensive style and hustle to Minnesota, Gopher fans will be howling at Williams Arena. Louisville showed it was No. 1.
Now, do you believe Luther preferred watching a meaningless baseball game played during the second week of the season to the college basketball title game? I do. Luther knows (and loves) baseball.
-Johnson: After the horrific injury to guard Kevin Ware, I wondered how the bench of Louisville would fare against Michigan. It turns out Luke Hancock was ready for the challenge, scoring 22 points. Bouncing back from a 10-point deficit, it was fun watching the Cardinals take the crown.
•Question: The Masters Golf Tournament is this week in Augusta, Ga. Tiger Woods hasn’t won the Masters since 2005. He’s had a decent start to the 2013 season. How good are his chances this week? Who’s your pick to be wearing the green jacket this year?
-Dorr: Woods appears to be back in form and certainly has a chance to win this week in a tournament he dearly loves. But I don’t think he will, even though he’s the favorite at 3-1. I was going to ask Gary how we’re supposed to pick the winner when the oddsmakers can’t even agree. One line has Rory McIlroy at 15-1, another at 8-1. One has Phil Mickelson at 10-1, another at 12-1. Then there’s Matteo Manassero at 150-1, David Lynn at 400-1 and Tian-Lang Guan at 3,000-1. Or, if you like oldies with no chance, Ben Crenshaw, Larry Mize and Sandy Lyle are all going off at 5,000-1. How about Bubba Watson at 33-1?
-Marxhausen: Tiger Woods has settled back into playing strong golf this year. He again looks comfortable and capable of winning any tournament. After all the headlines and fans bringing him down following his personal life struggles, it is now time for Woods to get back to what he does best – win. It is going to come down to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson pairing up on Sunday with everyone on the leader board behind them. I would give Woods anywhere from a 20 percent to a 40 percent chance of winning and Mickelson would be around 20 percent. My bet would be on Tiger to put the jacket back on after not winning for the past eight years.
-Larson: Woods is getting a lot of nods to win another Masters title this week. He won’t, but I wouldn’t mind if he did. He will challenge for the title into the final round but will finish anywhere from third to 10th. Put this year’s green jacket on Rory McIlroy. A charge by Woods would be a huge boost for the TV ratings.
-Johnson: I have always been a Tiger Woods fan. Voice your opinion as you will about his personal life away from golf but question not his abilities and talents as a golfer. Performing under pressure is where great athletes come to life and he has certainly done so in his career, winning 14 majors (second behind Jack Nicklaus). I think his chances are pretty good for the tournament. It has been a while since he has performed at a high level but I look for him to win the Masters this year.
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