Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Giants' Lincecum works his way to another complete game win against A's

Looking at the box score from the Giants’ 4-1 win Tuesday night over the A’s, you’d think this was just another no-sweat, Tim Lincecum gem.

He struck out 12 A’s. He pitched his fourth career complete game and second straight against the A’s this season. He allowed just seven hits and one run, Jason Giambi’s solo home run in the second. And he took just two hours and 16 minutes to complete the job.

Easy, right? Not exactly. Lincecum knows how hard he had to work to hold the A’s to one run and pitch a complete game.

He escaped one-out, bases-loaded jams in the fifth and sixth innings. Then the A’s put the first two batters on base in the seventh but came up empty.

“Tremendous effort,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “He got in a couple jams. Double plays both times saved us there… He has tremendous poise. He makes pitches when he has to have them.”

In his previous start, Lincecum took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning against the Angels. The Angels scored three times in the eighth and won 4-3, handing Lincecum his second loss of the season. This time the Giants built a 4-0 lead and led 4-1 after two innings. Lincecum said the memory of that loss to the Angels fueled him against the A’s.

“I was just trying to make really good pitches, especially when they got guys on in scoring position,” Lincecum said. “I think that’s kind of what helped me focus in those innings when I ran into a couple jams with the bases loaded.

“I was able to induce ground balls. All in all, I was just trying to keep the ball down and trying to not let them get the ball up in the air and scratch back with one run here and there.”

With one out in the fifth inning, the A’s Ryan Sweeney and Orlando Cabrera hit back-to-back singles. Lincecum walked Daric Barton, loading the bases, and A’s manager Bob Geren sent pinch hitter Nomar Garciaparra to the plate for Jack Hannahan.

Lincecum got Garciaparra to ground into a 5-4-3 double play, third baseman Pablo Sandoval handling a tricky hop.

“I’m trying to get a ground ball there,” Lincecum said. “That’s kind of why I went with a slider there. Hopefully catch him off guard. It worked out in hindsight.”

The next inning the A’s loaded the bases again with one out. Adam Kennedy led off with a single. After Jack Cust struck out, Matt Holliday doubled Kennedy to third, and Jason Giambi worked a walk, loading the bases.

This time, Lincecum got Kurt Suzuki to hit a soft two-hopper to shortstop Edgar Renteria, who stepped on second then threw to first for a double play.

“That kid, he’s unbelievable,” Giants catcher Bengie Molina said of Lincecum. “That kid is special. … That’s what I think he’s shown ever since he’s come up. He doesn’t rattle that easy.”

Lincecum got into more trouble in the seventh when Sweeney and Cabrera hit back-to-back singles again to open the frame. But he struck out Daric Barton, got Bobby Crosby to ground into a fielder’s choice then retired Kennedy on a fly ball that left fielder Andres Torres caught in foul territory before running into the wall.

Crosby’s ground ball, which ricocheted off Lincecum’s glove to second baseman Matt Downs, led to some controversy. When Downs flipped the ball to Renteria, the ball popped out of his glove as he tried to turn two. Second base umpire Mike Reilly ruled that Renteria had control long enough for the out, a call that drew the ire of A’s fans.

Lincecum is 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in four career starts against the A’s with 34 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.

“They’re doing their thing, too,” Lincecum said of the A’s. “They had seven hits. They put me in pretty tough situations. You flip a coin, and sometimes maybe the outcome is different, but it worked out in my favor today.”

By the end of the game, a large contingent of Giants fans was giving Lincecum a standing ovation as he completed the shutout.

“There was a lot of yellow and green out there, but there was a lot of black and orange, too,” Lincecum said. “You see wrestling going on in the stands. You hear yelling, bad things being said here and there.”

Rickey's return trip to Bay Area in '89 nearly ended in San Francisco

It’s been 20 seasons since the A’s swept the Giants in the 1989 World Series, a series remembered more for the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake that struck before Game 3 at Candlestick Park than for Oakland’s dominance on the field.

About a dozen players from that A’s team gathered for a reunion of sorts before Tuesday night’s game against the Giants at the Coliseum. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco – the Bash Brothers -- were absent, for all of the obvious steroids-related reasons.

But Rickey Henderson, still polishing his speech just a few weeks before his Hall of Fame induction at Cooperstown, showed up for the party and received a standing ovation during a pregame ceremony.

Henderson returned to the A’s that year in a midseason trade from the Yankees. To hear Henderson tell it before Tuesday’s game, he could well have been wearing orange and black during the ’89 World Series.

“We had the deal made with the Giants,” Henderson said. “And then when we asked them what they wanted me to do for their club, they wanted me to play right field and bat fifth. The deal was off.”

Henderson hit leadoff and played center field. Period. A few days later, Henderson said, the A’s stepped in and made the trade.

“It was surprising that I was coming back home,” Henderson said. “That was a good thing. I was coming back home. It was really new life. Sometimes we get in that last (year of a) contract, you want to have such great success in that year to get you a contract and then all of a sudden things aren’t going right, and it’s just all crazy. So it was a new life for me.”

Henderson hit just .247 in 65 games for George Steinbrenner’s Yankees that season. He had three homers, 22 RBI and 25 stolen bases. In 85 regular-season games with the A’s, he hit .294 with nine home runs, 35 RBI and 52 steals.

Henderson saved his best for the postseason that year. He hit .400 in a 4-1 series win over Toronto, earning ALCS MVP honors, then hit .474 in the World Series.

“Rickey’s a spotlight guy,” said Dave Henderson, an outfielder on that team. “The more people watch him, the better he’s going to play.”

The ’89 A’s were already a dominant team before general manager Sandy Alderson and team owner Wally Haas made the deal for Henderson.

“Walter was a winner,” said pitcher Dave Stewart, the MVP of the ’89 series. “Sandy was a winner. We really believed in putting our feet on people’s necks. Getting Rickey was the move that put us over the top.”

Alderson said he made the trade while talking to the Yankees from a “pay phone in Mill Valley,” back in the days when they had phone booths.

“There was a little bit of debate internally, whether we should do it or not,” Alderson said. “There wasn’t a lot. … It worked out pretty well.”

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Texas Tech coach takes aim at Browns' Mangini in defense of Crabtree

Can we call this Diva-Gate?

By any name, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach helped liven up the first day of the NFL draft.

After Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree was drafted by the 49ers with the No. 10 pick in the first round, Leach spoke to reporters at team headquarters in Santa Clara.

Leach used the interview to praise Crabtree and defend him against accusations that he’s a diva. Leach took aim at Cleveland coach Eric Mangini for apparently leaking that claim after Crabtree visited the Browns before the draft.

“Anybody who refers to him as a diva doesn’t know him very good,” Leach said during a conference call. “My definition of a diva is somebody who’s loud and self-absorbed. Michael Crabtree’s the furthest thing from loud I’ve ever seen. Michael Crabtree is self-effacing to the point where when he’d have the biggest of games and the biggest of moments, he would shyly hold his helmet and shuffle his feet. The sports information director would say,’ We have ESPN here, we have Sports Illustrated, we have the Sporting News, and then you’d look up and he was gone and he’d refuse to answer the phone. I’ve seen Michael Crabtree run from the spotlight more than I’ve seen him chase the spotlight.”

Leach was later asked if Mangini had ever called him to get information about Crabtree.

“No, which I find interesting,” Leach said. “I think he took it upon himself to figure that in a few minutes he had all the expertise on Michael Crabtree that he needed. So, you know, we’ll see how all those non-divas up there in Cleveland do this year. And here’s the other thing. It’s interesting that a guy who really has not accomplished a great deal there at Cleveland or the Jets, for that matter, would have the temerity to publicly comment on A, someone that he doesn’t even know and B, someone whose accomplishments speak for themselves. And within the specific field that Michael Crabtree is in, Michael’s accomplishments speak louder than Mangini’s do.”

At the end of the interview, Leach had a parting shot for Mangini.

“I appreciate your having me on,” Leach said. “On behalf of everybody here at Texas Tech, we’re very sorry we did not make a proper impression on Eric Mangini. We certainly hope that in the future that we can do better, because out here in West Texas, we’re all aspiring to somehow impress him.”

49ers stand pat and let Crabtree fall to them at No. 10

First things first. I think a thank you note from the 49ers to the Raiders is in order. Don’t you?

The Raiders chose Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh pick in the first round, taking the fastest receiver in the draft but leaving Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree, arguably the most skilled receiver, for the 49ers.

This actually worked out perfectly for both teams. The Raiders got the big speedster they wanted, someone to run down JaMarcus Russell’s deep passes. The 49ers got a polished receiver with great hands, someone to move the chains and get into the end zone.

The 49ers, apparently, also got themselves a receiver with a bit of an edge and attitude. Crabtree has been mentored by none other than Deion Sanders. What’s more, 49ers coach Mike Singletary said he reminds him a little bit of former Dallas Cowboy wideout Michael Irvin, in terms of his “attitude” and physical skills.

As long as Crabtree doesn’t go T.O. on the 49ers, I have no problem with that.

Here’s the complete transcript of Singletary’s interview, just minutes after making the pick.


“Very glad about the pick that we had a chance to make. We had no idea that he would be there at 10. It was one of the last scenarios we thought we’d end up with. Obviously he’s the most productive guy the last couple years in college football as a receiver. So very excited to get a playmaker on the offensive side of the ball.”

When you saw him there, did you think, this is the guy we’ve got to get?

“It’s one of those situations where, like I said, there’s so many different scenarios, and when we were coming down to it, we thought for sure that the last couple of picks that were there, he wouldn’t be there. When he was, Scot (McCloughan) said, ‘Mike, you know what? This is great. This is outstanding. Make the pick.’”

Where does he fit in terms of the other receivers on the team?

“I think we’ll figure it out. I think it’s one of those scenarios where you’ve a playmaker. The biggest thing is we’re not going just put him out there and say, ‘Hey, you’re the X, you’re the Z,’ whatever it is. He’s going to have to earn his way on, but the most important thing is we know we have a playmaker. We were very excited about having that opportunity on our football team.”

He came in here several weeks ago to visit with you. During that time and since then there’s been a lot of talk about him being a diva and the entourage and the roommate. What did you learn from sitting down and talking to him that made you comfortable making this guy the pick at No. 10 overall?

“I think first of all, these are young men, not just him, but all those college guys, and they’re going from one team to the next, they’re being picked apart. I think it’s very difficult to get a feel for the guy just sitting there. But I think the thing that we had the opportunity to do, you talk to people that know him, you talk to people that played with him, you talk to people that have been around him. Just made several phone calls and really did our homework and came away feeling very good about his character and who he is and knowing that he’s one of those guys that really has the opportunity to be special. That’s just very exciting for us.”

Do you want the No. 1 receiver to be a little bit cocky, to be a little full of himself out there?

“Well, I don’t know a little bit full of himself. I just think it’s one of those things, normally when you get great players, sometimes you get a little bit of attitude with them. It has a tendency to throw some people off, but I think for us on the offensive side of the ball, a little swagger is fine with me.”

At No. 7, the Raiders picked. They had similar needs to you. What was the reaction in the room when they took Darrius Heyward-Bey?

“Well, they got the guy that…. When you look at Al Davis, Al Davis has been very true to what he’s done all along. He loves speed. He loves size. And that’s what he went with. I think for us, I think the speed is obviously a question for a lot of different people, but obviously not for us. When we look at the film we see a guy that has a different speed. I don’t know how fast he is. I just know that when he catches the ball, there’s separation there. I know he’s a physical guy. He does the things that he has to do. He’s willing to block. I’ve seen him do that. So, very excited about all of the upside he has.”

How did he check out medically?

“He checks out fine. Our doctors checked him out, and he checks out just fine.”

Will he be able to participate in next week’s minicamp?

“Minicamp, probably the biggest thing he’d be able to do is the walkthrough we’d have. I wouldn’t want him to do anything more than that, but he will definitely be ready for training camp. That’s really the most important thing.”

Did you have a chance to talk to him yet?

“Yes. I talked to him right after we had the pick. For him, I’ve been there. I knew that he was a little bit down but at the same time excited about the way we feel about him and how we see him and having the opportunity to come to our football team.”

What did you say to him?

“I just told him, ‘You know what, how do you feel about being a 49er?’ ‘Coach, I feel great about that.’ I said, ‘I know what you’re feeling right now. There’s a lot of different things going through your mind. Probably projected, you thought this or thought that, but just know that you came to the best place. We’re going to make the best of your talent and we’ll go from there.’”

Jeremy Maclin was on the board, too. Was this a clear choice

“For us, Crabtree on our board was the best receiver, and really one of the best players. For us, it was just jumped out at you. When you looked at the board, you really didn’t have to make the decision, the board and all of the work the guys have done and gone through this offseason really made the decision for us.”

Production in games important?

“Absolutely. You have the production. When you see him at wide receiver, it’s not just a guy catching the ball. It’s a guy out there, he finds a way to get separation. He knows how to use his body. He has exceptional hands. And he’s running away from people at the same time. He’s willing to block and does a good job of that as well. I’m very excited about what we saw on the film.”

Was there any discussion about (Mississippi offensive tackle) Michael Oher?

“Absolutely a thought. You know for me, that was definitely a thought. You look at Michael Oher, you look at a tackle. You want to protect the quarterback. But at the same time you have the opportunity for a playmaker, and you’ve got to make that decision, you’ve got to make that call.”

How much time did you need before deciding Crabtree was your guy?

“In all honesty, we were talking about a couple of other scenarios, whether Eugene Monroe would be there. And you come back and he’s still there and ‘Whoa, OK. We’ve got to rethink this and rehash some of the thoughts and ideas.’ But once he was there, as I said before, it’s just a matter of, if you look at the board, it just jumps out at you. It’s not even something that you really have to talk about.”

Did other teams call to trade up?

“We had several feelers, but nothing serious.”

You have Texas roots. Did that help in your research on Crabtree?

“It helped a lot. If you’re going to draft at the No. 10 spot, you’d better know a lot more than what you saw on film. For me, it’s having the opportunity to have some resources to go to and ask a lot of questions about the kid, his family, his background, his upbringing, all of those things. They all check out very well. The guy’s a winner. Very excited about his though process about what he wants to do and how he wants to work and what he wants to bring to that position.”

You’ve played against a lot of great receivers, you coached against some. Can you compare him to anybody?

“I guess to stand here and say, ‘He reminds me of this guy,’ I can’t think of anybody off the top of my head. Obviously you think of a guy like Jerry Rice. I don’t want to go there because he hasn’t done it yet at this level. Obviously we feel he can do it at this level. But there are certainly some other receivers. … He’s a thick guy. You may think of a Michael Irvin type of receiver. He’s big enough, he’s got the attitude. He’s got great hands. That may come to mind when you see him.”

The 49ers took two receivers most recently in the first round that didn’t work out so good, Rashaun Woods and J.J. Stokes. Any concerns about the risks of any player chosen at No. 10?

“Every player drafted today is a risk. Detroit paid seventy-some odd million dollars. That’s a tremendous risk. So I think that’s what the draft is all about. It’s about you doing your homework and not relying on hearsay. It’s a chance to see the kid, meet the kid, and to the best of our knowledge, this is a really good pick for us, and we’re very excited about it.”

Picking a receiver so high, any concern?

“No. The film to me speaks to itself. … When you look at this guy, then when you see the guy, obviously there’s something there. I really do think he has the chance to be special, but we’ll see. Time will tell.”

Who were some of the people that you talked to in Texas, concerning his diva image?

“As far as his diva image, one of the guys I talked to, I talked to Deion Sanders a little bit, who spent a tremendous amount of time with him. Basically, when you talk to Deion about him, it’s one of those things where, ‘Mike, here’s what it is, here’s what I see. I’m with the kid all the time. Here’s what it was before the season was over, during his last year at school, during his sophomore year at school, all of those things.’ We really talked about it. When you look at the kid, the most interesting thing he said when he was here, we sat and we talked. I said, ‘What is your hobby?’ He said, ‘You know, I could sit in front of a computer and just really get into fashion.’ He said, ‘You’re never going to see me wear the same thing twice. I’m really into fashion. I like designing things.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, fashion? Talk to me a bit. What do you mean?’ He broke it down a bit. He’s really into clothes. So of course I could see right away the connection between he and Deion. I felt like I was talking to Deion there for a bit. But this guy, he knows who he is. He knows what he wants to achieve. He has a best friend that he spends a lot of time with. He’s surrounded by good people. So I’m OK with all that. And I’m sure some things will come up here and there, but we’ll deal with that.”

As usual, Raiders think fast in NFL draft and grab speedy receiver Heyward-Bey

You’ve got to hand it to Raiders boss Al Davis. He’s nothing if not consistent. He had his choice of wide receivers with the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL draft, and he took the fastest one, Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Most draftniks had Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree and Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin rated ahead of Heyward-Bey. But when did Davis ever accept the consensus view? Try never.

The way Davis values speed, you’d think he owned a NASCAR team. It’s all about the vertical game in Al’s world. As one of the talking heads on the NFL Network said, Davis is a height-weight-speed guy. In other words, his draft motto might as well be, “In the NFL Combine We Trust.”

Heyward-Bey wasn’t just the fastest wide receiver at the combine. He was the fastest player at any position, clocking a 4.3 for 40 yards. Combine that speed with his great size -- 6-foot-2, 210-pound -- and you have a perfect Raiders pick.

Some have questioned Heyward-Bey’s hands. Some have called him a boom-bust pick, a player who could become a superstar or could break your heart while he breaks the bank.

That’s perfect Al Davis, a man who’s never been afraid to take a risk or go against the tide.

Fortunately for the Raiders, Davis didn’t go too much against tide. The Raiders desperately needed a wide receiver, a go-to guy for quarterback JaMarcus Russell, and Davis grabbed one.

Time will tell if he got the right pass catcher.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Some free draft advice for the Raiders and 49ers

The Detroit Lions are on the clock, but I’m more interested in what the Raiders and 49ers are going to do in the first round of the NFL draft on Saturday.

Here’s what I think they should do, starting with the Raiders, who have the No. 7 overall pick. Take the best wide receiver on the board. Not just the fastest wide receiver or the best combine workout warrior. The best wide receiver, someone who has good hands, runs good routes AND has good speed.

The Raiders invested the No. 1 overall pick and countless millions of dollars on quarterback JaMarcus Russell in 2007. They’ve got to get him a marquee receiver to catch his passes. You’re already starting to hear whispers that Russell is a bust. But it’s hard to tell if he is or isn’t when the Raiders’ receiving corps is so weak. I mean, when Chaz Schilens, Johnnie Lee Higgins and, if they can stay healthy, Javon Walker and Drew Carter, are the best of the bunch, you’ve got problems.

The Raiders haven’t drafted a wide receiver in the first round since 1988, when they chose Tim Brown out of Notre Dame. I’d say that pick worked out well. Certainly a lot better than some of the first-round picks since then, such as safeties Michael Huff and Derrick Gibson, cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Phillip Buchanon, tight end Rickey Dudley, offensive tackle Matt Stinchcomb and quarterback Todd Marinovich.

Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree could be a nice fit, if he falls to No. 7, although knowing the Raiders, they’ll probably be tempted by Missouri wide receiver Jeremy Maclin’s blazing speed and maybe even Maryland wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey’s combination of size, strength, speed and potential, despite the red flag warnings that he’s a boom-or-bust risk.

Who knows? Maybe the Raiders can work a draft-day trade for disgruntled Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin. He’s probably not as fast as Al Davis wants his No. 1 receiver to be, but he’s a proven commodity, and one of the NFL’s most physical wide receivers.

Now for the 49ers at No. 10. If USC quarterback Mark Sanchez falls to them, the 49ers should take him and thank the football gods.

Quarterback is the most important position in football, and the 49ers have been searching for a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback ever since they let Jeff Garcia leave as a free agent after the 2003 season. Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, was supposed to be the answer. But he struggled early then battled injuries. This year he had to take a huge pay cut for the chance to stick with the 49ers and battle journeyman Shaun Hill for the starting job.

During their glory years, there was always one constant for the 49ers. They had a future Hall of Fame quarterback leading the team, either Joe Montana or Steve Young. The last time they went to the playoffs was 2002, when Garcia threw 21 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions.

If the 49ers draft Sanchez, Hill can keep the position warm until he’s ready to step in. They won’t have to throw Sanchez into the fray, the way they did Smith in 2005.

So what if Sanchez is gone when the 49ers pick, a very real possibility? If Crabtree slides that far, they should grab him. Same for Maclin.

The 49ers haven’t had a receiver who scared anyone since Terrell Owens forced his way out of town following the 2003 season. This is a franchise that has been known for its receivers, from the days of Dave Parks and Bernie Casey, to Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, John Taylor and T.O.

Now they’re relying on Isaac Bruce, the ancient one, and youngsters such as Josh Morgan, Jason Hill and Brandon Jones, a free-agent pickup.

Here’s what the 49ers shouldn’t do. They shouldn’t pick an offensive tackle at No. 10. Yeah, I understand that coach Mike Singletary wants the 49ers’ to become more physical on offense, able to pick up a yards on the ground whenever they want, no matter how many defenders are in the box. A young, physical tackle would be nice to have.

On the other hand, the 49ers landed Marvel Smith, a veteran offensive tackle, in free agency. What’s more, since 2005, the 49ers have invested a first-round pick in offensive tackle Joe Staley, two second-round picks in guards David Baas and Chilo Rachal and a third-round pick in offensive guard/tackle Adam Snyder. Staley, Baas and Rachal are starters, while Snyder is expected to be the top backup at guard and tackle.

If the New York Giants have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t need a stable of high draft picks to have a quality offensive line. The 49ers have invested enough for now in their offensive line. Besides, the top offensive tackles, Baylor’s Jason Smith and Virginia’s Eugene Monroe, will already be gone when they pick. Alabama’s Andre Smith will probably be gone, too, which would leave Mississippi’s Michael Oher as the top remaining offensive tackle.

If Sanchez, Crabtree and Maclin are gone by the time they pick, the 49ers might be better served to grab a pass-rushing defensive end/outside linebacker or a nose tackle (to protect linebacker Patrick Willis) than an offensive tackle.

Or, they could trade down and stockpile picks to use on say, a safety, a situational pass rusher and a cornerback to groom for the future – Walt Harris isn’t getting any younger.

There’s my free advice. We’ll see what happens on Saturday.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What rust? Nabokov shines for Sharks in first game back after injury

It was Evgeni Nabokov Appreciation Night at the Shark Tank on Saturday.

No, not officially. But by the huge ovation Nabokov received from fans during pre-game introductions and the chants of “Nab-eee! Nab-eee!” you could tell Sharks fans were ecstatic to have him back in goal.

Nabokov had missed the past seven games with a lower body injury. During that span, the Sharks went 2-4-1.

The sellout crowd of 17,496 was even happier at the end of the night, when Nabokov stopped six of seven shots in a shootout and the Sharks grabbed a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.

“He played well,” said Sharks forward Jonathan Cheechoo, who beat Kings goalie Erik Ersberg for the game-winner in the shootout. “He made all the big saves.”

Nabokov stopped five shots in the first period, as the Sharks took a 1-0 lead on Milan Michalek’s goal at the 5:28 mark, the assists going to Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle.

Nabokov gave up a goal early in the second period, Wayne Simmonds knocking a rebound past him. But later in the period he made a sprawling save when Simmonds had a breakaway chance during a Sharks power play. He stopped 11 shots in the period.

Then early in the third period, Nabokov produced one of the biggest plays of the game. The Kings had a two-on-none breakaway and came away empty against Nabokov. They never pulled the trigger because they never found an opening. Moments later, the fans erupted in another chorus of “Nab-eee! Nab-eee!”

“You don’t have much time to think,” Nabokov said. “You just try to read what they’re going to try to do. The odds are against me.”

Even though the Kings didn’t shoot on that play, Nabokov called it his “best save” of the night. There were more great saves to come, these ones on actual shots.

In overtime, Nabokov came up with another huge save. First he blocked Anze Kopitar’s slap shot from the right wing. The puck wound up lying in front of the Sharks goal in the crease. Nabokov located it at the last instant and smothered it before the Kings could arrive and blast it home.

“I had no idea where the puck was,” Nabokov said.

Then in the shootout, Nabokov outlasted Ersberg in a battle of the goalies.

In the third round, Pavelski put the Sharks up 1-0 with a beautiful goal. He angled right, then left, then hesitated before ripping a shot just inside the right post. The Kings’ Jack Johnson answered immediately, beating Nabokov to his stick side.

That was the last time a Kings shot found the net. Nabokov stopped Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Alexander Frolov, Michal Handzus and, after Cheechoo scored for the Sharks, Teddy Purcell.

“He looked very sharp,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “We’re excited for him. We’re happy to have him back. … The rest of the coaching staff who watched him warm up, they used the term he was ‘zoned in.’”

Nabokov is just one in a long list of Sharks who have missed games because of injuries. Defensemen Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich, two of the wounded, returned to action, along with Nabokov. Mike Grier, Jeremy Roenick, Claude Lemieux are among those still out.

The Sharks won’t blame their skid on injuries – that’s taboo in the NHL – but those injuries, particularly Nabokov’s, have definitely hurt their record. You simply don’t lose one of the NHL’s top goalies for seven games and not suffer some consequences.

Fortunately for the Sharks, they’re not paying a huge price for their slump, thanks to all of their good work earlier in the season. They still have plenty of time to get the rest of their injured players healthy and get back on a roll heading into the playoffs. With 98 points, they remained just one behind Detroit, which beat St. Louis, in the battle for Western Conference supremacy.

Even though the Sharks went zero for eight on the power play and found the net just once in regulation and overtime, McLellan said Saturday night’s win might be the official start of their turnaround and the beginning of the end of their offensive funk.

“We looked a little more like we should look,” McLellan said of the Sharks, who out-shot the Kings 39-24. “Sometimes when you’re trying to come out of a mini-slump, the bounces don’t go your way. I thought we generated a lot of chances. … Their goalie was a money goalie.”

But not quite as money as Nabokov.

“He played great,” Sharks Boyle said. “He came through in the shootout. He’s probably a big reason why we won the two points. We were all expecting him to be in top shape and he was.”

With Mills back on track, St. Mary's deserves NCAA Tournament berth

St. Mary’s center Omar Samhan had it right, just minutes after the Gaels’ 85-65 win Friday night over Eastern Washington, a.k.a. their last chance to convince the NCAA Tournament selection committee that they deserve an at-large berth.

“Nothing you can do now but pray,” said Samhan, who scored a career-high 29 points to go with 12 rebounds. “All you can do is hope for the best. It’s out of our control now.”

That it is for a so-called “bubble” team from a mid-major conference. I can only hope that the selection committee is wise enough to realize that St. Mary’s deserves a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Gaels coach Randy Bennett rolled the dice last week when he added a game against Eastern Washington to the schedule. Bennett wanted to give point guard Patty Mills one more chance to convince committee members that he has recovered from the broken right hand he suffered on Jan. 29 against Gonzaga.

The risk for Bennett was that his team could have played poorly and Mills could have had his third straight frigid shooting night. That would have sealed St. Mary’s fate two days before Selection Sunday.

Bennett, though, hit the jackpot because Mills got his shooting groove back and the Gaels reminded everyone just how good they are when their leading scorer and court leader is healthy and in synch.

Mills scored 19 points, making 6 of 14 shots from the field and, more importantly, 4 of 9 from long range. Compare that to his numbers in the WCC tournament, when he went 5-for-28 overall and 2-for-16 from 3-point range against Portland and Gonzaga.

“I think he’s back,” Bennett said of Mills. “I don’t know what else you’d want a guy to do.”

Mills played 33 minutes, more than any other player on either team. He had four steals, two assists, two rebounds and just one turnover. He was aggressive on both ends of the court, from start to finish.

“It’s pretty much 100 percent,” Mills said of his right hand.

The beauty of having a selection committee, instead of some BCS system of polls and computers, is that those members can analyze teams and make rational decisions. They can factor in the impact of injuries and the return of injured stars.

The Gaels have won a school record 26 games against just six losses. They were 18-1 entering their Jan. 29 game at Gonzaga. At the time, they were ranked No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today poll and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.

Mills scored 18 points before he was injured in the first half. He helped St. Mary’s build a 39-33 halftime lead. Without Mills, the Gaels struggled in the second half and lost 69-62. Then they lost three of their next four games, falling to Portland, Santa Clara and Gonzaga, by just two points.

After that, they won their final five regular-season games, all without Mills.

“We only had one bad stretch,” Bennett said. “Any team in the country, if they lost a guy like Patty, is going to have the same bad stretch. Our guys, given the situation, I don’t know how much better they could have done.

“We were 18-1 when it happened. We dealt with it. We didn’t lose to any bad teams. We lost to Gonzaga three times.”

If Mills hadn’t broken his hand, it’s likely the Gaels would have remained a Top-25 team. They likely would have finished with at least 29 wins.

If Mills hadn’t returned to action and hadn’t shown that he’s back on track, then the Gaels wouldn’t deserve an at-large berth. But with the real Patty Mills, St. Mary’s is a legitimate tournament team.

The Gaels made the NCAA Tournament last year with 25 wins. Granted, St. Mary’s had more victories last year over eventual tournament teams, including Gonzaga and Oregon. But anyone who has followed the Gaels understands that this year’s team is decidedly better.

It’s deeper and much more experienced. St. Mary’s returned almost the entire squad from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Mills was just a freshman last year. As good as he was last season, he has been that much better this year with that year of experience. Samham took his game to a much higher level. Forward Diamon Simpson, the Gaels’ all-time rebounding king, continued to improve. When Mills was out, players such as Mickey McConnell, Carlin Hughes and Wayne Hunter stepped up.

The Gaels team I watched Friday was NCAA Tournament worthy. We’ll find out Sunday if the selection committee agrees.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The reasons behind T.O.'s decision to sign with Buffalo

Top 10 reasons Terrell Owens signed with the Buffalo Bills:

10. His good friend Donovan McNabb gave Buffalo two thumbs up.

9. The NFL doesn’t have a team in Siberia.

8. He can see Canada from the window of his new home

7. After striking out in the NFC _ 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys _ he wanted to swing and miss in the AFC.

6. Even Al Davis wouldn’t return his calls.

5. He thought Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith still played for the Bills.

4. After one season, he’ll be free to destroy another team.

3. Blame it on Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson.

2. In these tough economic times, his $6.5 million will stretch farther in a blue-collar town.

1. Must be the Buffalo wings.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A great day for Oregon Ducks baseball

I’ve been waiting 28 years to say -- or write -- this about a University of Oregon baseball team: Go Ducks!

I watched my former team beat St. Mary’s last week in their season-opener in Moraga. Today, I followed the inning-by-inning action via Adam Jude’s “Talkin’ Baseball” blog for the Eugene Register-Guard as the Ducks beat defending NCAA champion Fresno State 1-0 in their home-opener at PK Park.

Not bad for a program that was disbanded after the 1981 season for reasons that still don’t make sense to me nearly 30 years later. But that’s history. I’m more interested in the new era of Oregon baseball.

From what I saw at St. Mary’s, this young Oregon team has amazing fire and spirit, which is a credit to coach George Horton. The Ducks may not have a ton of power, but they hustle and play hard.

It looks like Horton found himself an ace in Tyler Anderson, a freshman lefty from Las Vegas, who held Fresno State scoreless for eight innings. I saw him pitch against St. Mary’s. He’s got some great off-speed pitches, a good fastball and a lot of presence and guts for a freshman. He’s already been thrown into two pressure-packed games and handled both amazingly well.

Jett Hart (What a great first name for a guy who can run) and Caleb Tommasini look like they’ll give the Ducks’ offense a little juice.

I got a chance to look at PK Park a few weeks ago. I liked the setting of Howe Field better because it was in the middle of campus, with the forested hills beyond left and center-field. But man, this new park is truly a gem that will only get better when the second phase is completed, replacing the temporary stands with a permanent structure.

I only wish that Mel Krause, my old coach from 1973-77, had lived long enough to watch the Ducks play this season. He would have loved how hard these Ducks play and respected the job that coach Horton has done.

I was sorry I didn’t get a chance to attend today’s game. If there are any Ducks out there who saw the game, it would be great if you could share your impressions and thoughts.

Go Ducks!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More signs that sports world can't escape harsh economic reality

If you didn’t already know the economy was in freefall, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hammered home that reality Wednesday.

The NFL confirmed that Goodell is voluntarily taking a 20-25 percent pay cut from the $11 million in salary and bonuses he was to receive in the 2008 fiscal year, which ends March 31. A few months ago, the NFL slashed 169 jobs, a reduction of over 15 percent.

No, Goodell won’t have to apply for food stamps. And NFL teams are still throwing around money for players (see Al Davis, Nnamdi Asomugha and Shane Lechler) as if times were flush. But when the biggest sports cash cow in the world starts cutting salaries and jobs, you know the entire industry could be approaching very tough times.

It could be that Goodell’s salary slash is a PR move as the league approaches negotiations with the NFL Players Association over the collective bargaining agreement. The league can go to the negotiating table trumpeting its staff and salary cuts as it argues for a bigger piece of the pie.

But enough cynicism.

Tough times are hitting more than just the NFL. While scanning a few headlines today, I saw that Greg Norman suggested that the PGA Tour should reduce its prize money purses, in light of the huge economic downturn. The Tour is losing some high-profile title sponsors, including FBR, the sponsor of that cocktail party/tournament near Phoenix, which will bow out after 2010.

Even some baseball teams, other than the Yankees, have shown some fiscal restraint in free agency. Manny Ramirez is still looking for a team to pay him as if it’s 2007.

Times can’t be that tough for baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig is still making $18 million a year. When Selig slashes his salary, I’ll know that the sports Apocalypse has arrived.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

With Martz out and Raye in, 49ers' offense in peril of taking another tumble in 2009

For the sake of all 49ers fan, I hope I’m wrong, but I have a feeling you and your team are going to miss offensive coordinator Mike Martz before too long.

After firing Martz then conducting an exhaustive search, coach Mike Singletary hired Jimmy Raye as the 49ers’ new offensive coordinator. Who knows? Maybe hiring Raye will turn out to be pure genius. Maybe he’ll bring stability to an offense that, counting Raye, has had a different offensive coordinator for seven straight years.

My gut’s telling me this hire was a mistake and that the 49ers’ offense is going to take a step backward in 2009.

I mean, this was the anti-WOW! hire. In eight of Raye’s 12 seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator, his teams had losing records. Raye’s offenses failed to average over 20 points per game in seven of those seasons.

Under Martz, the 49ers averaged 21.2 points per game. Say what you want to about Martz, but he’s an offensive magician. He took the NFL’s worst offense and turned it into something respectable last season. Well, at least after Singletary stepped in and benched quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan in favor of Shaun Hill.

Singletary and Martz obviously clashed when it came to offensive philosophy. I suppose Mad Mike and smash-mouth Samurai Mike was a combustible marriage. I suppose it couldn’t last, even though the results they produced together were good, with Singletary forcing Martz to reign in his uber-aggressive, self-destructive tendencies.

Raye and Singletary apparently are simpatico when it comes to their shared belief in having a tough, physical offense that can run through brick walls.

Personally, I wish the 49ers had never abandoned the West Coast offense. That was the team’s signature, its identity, its source of offensive stability since the day Eddie DeBartolo hired Bill Walsh as his coach in 1979. You can argue whether it’s the best offensive system, but at least the 49ers knew who they were and the type of players and coaches they needed to fit their scheme.

When the 49ers fired coach Steve Mariucci after a 10-6 playoff season in 2002 and hired Dennis Erickson, they lost their offensive identity. They’ve been floundering ever since, switching schemes and coordinators as often as hockey teams change lines.

Raye’s approach is more akin to the Ernie Zampese/Norv Turner offensive philosophy than anything Walshian.

I’m certainly not expecting to see offensive magic from the 49ers next season. But at a minimum, they should establish an offensive identity and stick with it for at least a few years. The team simply can’t keep changing coordinators and schemes if it hopes to ever return to the playoffs.

At 62, Raye is probably too old to be a prime head-coaching candidate. So the 49ers probably won’t lose him the way they lost Mike McCarthy to the Packers and Turner to the Chargers after one season in San Francisco. Raye agreed to a three-year deal with the 49ers and said he hopes to fulfill that contract and land another with the team. The 49ers have also hired a new quarterbacks coach, 41-year-old Mike Johnson. So maybe Johnson can learn under Raye and be ready to step in for a seamless transition when Raye retires.

Of course that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case is that the 49ers’ offense backtracks, Raye gets whacked, and the 49ers start over again.

We’ll find out soon enough.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Steelers will ride No. 1 ranked defense to Super Bowl victory over Cardinals

I was watching a cable news channel this morning when a story came on about a Kodiak bear from the Pittsburgh Zoo predicting the winner of Super Bowl XLIII. There were two boxes, one with a Pittsburgh Steelers logo, and the other with an Arizona Cardinals logo.

Shockingly, a bear from the Pittsburgh Zoo picked the Steelers’ box. Imagine that. Of course that box wasn’t soaked in salmon oil or covered with honey. That would be dishonest. What are you, cynical?

I have to say, I agree with the bear. The Steelers will win the Super Bowl. I'll even give you a final score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 17.

Most of my reasons for picking Pittsburgh revolve around defense. I hate to drop the cliché card so early in the discussion, but there’s a simple reason they say defense wins championships. It’s usually true.

The Steelers nearly won the NFL’s triple crown on defense this season. They ranked No. 1 in total defense (based on yards allowed), No. 1 in pass defense and No. 2 in run defense. But here’s the most important defensive statistic: Pittsburgh held its opponents to an average of 13.9 points per game, the fewest in the NFL.

And Arizona? The Cardinals allowed 26.6 points per game, 28th in the league. They ranked 19th in total defense, 22nd in pass defense and 16th in rush defense.

Granted, Arizona has the edge on offense, averaging 26.7 points per game (No. 3) to Pittsburgh’s 21.7 (No. 20). And the Cardinals finished fourth in total offense and second in passing, while the Steelers ranked 22nd and 17th, respectively, in those categories. Pittsburgh’s only offensive edge came in rushing, where it ranked 23rd to Arizona’s 32nd.

When it comes to the Super Bowl, I’ll always take a team centered on a physical, dominant defense over one centered on a very good but far from great offense.

The Cardinals have been impressive in their playoff wins over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia, averaging 31.7 points per game. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner has been magnificent, throwing for 770 yards and completing 66.3 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. His postseason passer rating is 112.1.

Warner, though, rarely was forced out of his comfort zone in those three wins against teams that employ 4-3 defenses. More often than not, he was able to drop back, set his feet and throw on rhythm, usually to a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald.

Those days are over. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will make life very uncomfortable for Warner and Fitzgerald with his pressure-packed, confusing 3-4 scheme.

Pittsburgh outside linebackers James Harrison, the NFL’s Defensive MVP, and LaMarr Woodley, combined for 28 sacks this season. Inside linebacker James Farrior added four sacks. Even if the Steelers don’t rack up a huge number of sacks against Warner, they’ll hit him and force him to throw on the run. When Warner is forced to move, he goes from being an MVP candidate to a very average quarterback.

There’s no way the Steelers let Fitzgerald run as freely as he’s been able to run so far in the playoffs. I have a feeling strong safety Troy Polamalu will be there to greet Fitzgerald a few times when he runs those shallow crossing routes. LeBeau will find a way to contain Fitzgerald and force Warner to throw more often to his less dangerous targets. Yes, Anquan Boldin is good, but he’s been battling assorted injuries and has been whining about his contract. At this point, he’s no Fitzgerald.

The Steelers aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will find a way to make just enough big plays for the Steelers to win. At 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, he’s tough to bring down. At some point during the Super Bowl, he’ll use his size and strength to escape a sack and complete a game-changing strike, likely to Hines Ward.

The Steelers will have one other big edge other than defense at the Super Bowl. Raymond James Stadium will seem like a home away from home for Pittsburgh.

Remember what it was like at Ford Field in Detroit for Super Bowl XL when the Steelers beat Seattle 21-10? Steelers fans far outnumbered Seahawks fans in the stadium that day. It will be the same thing this year in Tampa. The Steelers have a long and storied history that includes five Super Bowl victories. Steelers fans travel well and are willing to pay big bucks to see their team play.

The Cardinals are relatively recent transplants in Arizona. They’ve never won a Super Bowl. Let’s just say the Arizona Cardinals are not exactly America’s Team.

Let your Terrible Towels fly.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Round 3 of Sharks vs. Flames has a playoff feel to it

Playoff hockey in January?

That’s the way it looked to me from high above the rink at the Shark Tank, and that’s the way it felt for those on the ice Thursday night in Round 3 between the Sharks and Calgary Flames.

For the first time all season, the Sharks lost a home game in regulation, falling 3-2 to a Calgary team they beat in the first round of the playoffs last season. They’re now 20-1-2 at home, but the Sharks certainly didn’t go down quietly.

“I think it was a great hockey game,” said Sharks center Joe Thornton, who scored one goal and came within an eyelash of scoring another. “It was a playoff type atmosphere.”

As for the Sharks suffering their first home loss in regulation, Thornton just shrugged it off, saying, “It was bound to happen.” His thoughts were clearly centered more on the emotional game he had just played against a tough and sometimes bitter rival than on the end of the streak.

“Who knows? We’ll probably meet each other in the playoffs,” Thornton said.

That thought certainly doesn’t worry him.

“I thought we were more physical than them. I thought we were quicker than them,” Thornton said. “I think we stack up pretty good against them.”

Thornton’s probably right. Then again, the Sharks have lost two straight to the Flames, including a 5-2 thrashing at Calgary on Jan. 6, a payback for a 6-1 Sharks victory in San Jose on Nov. 13.

The final three-goal margin in Calgary doesn’t come close to telling you the true story of that butt kicking. Calgary led 4-0 early in the second period. Sharks coach Todd McLellan pulled goalie Evgeni Nabokov and replaced him with Brian Boucher. At that point, he might as well have put Bobby Boucher into the game.

This will tell you exactly what McLellan thought about the way his team played that night. Instead of giving his players a practice-free day, as planned, he scheduled a workout for early the next morning in Calgary before the Sharks traveled to Edmonton.

“The effort (tonight) when you compare it to what we had in Calgary was much better,” McLellan said.”

Thornton’s effort, in particular, stood out.

“Joe was competitive,” McLellan said. “I liked the fire he had in him. I thought it rubbed off on some of his linemates.”

Thornton is a pass-first center, but on Thursday night against Calgary he took matters into his own hands more often than usual.

Thornton put the Sharks ahead 2-1 at 6:57 of the second period, ripping a shot past Miikka Kiprusoff. He took the puck along the right boards, glided to his left and snapped a shot that beat the former Shark goalie on his glove side, just inside the post. It was the type of effortless, powerful offense that makes you wonder why Thornton doesn’t shoot more often.

Calgary wasted little time before answering. Just eight seconds into a power play, Daymond Langkow redirected a shot from Michael Cammalleri past Evegeni Nabokov with 10:25 still left in the second.

Thornton nearly put the Sharks back ahead on a power play with under nine minutes left to play. He rocketed a shot that hit the left post then ricocheted off the right post and out of the crease. The Sharks came away empty on that power play, as well as their four others.

“That’s the breaks,” Thornton said. “Another inch one way and it goes in. Another inch the other way and it misses the net.”

Minutes later, another break went Calgary’s way. Dion Phaneuf’s shot from the right circle deflected off Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s stick and past Nabokov at 16:03 of the third.

“I just don’t like losing to Calgary,” said Sharks forward Ryane Clowe, who scored the game’s first goal. “I guess we can’t complain too much about the effort. We played physical. We played hard.

“It was a good test for us. That was probably one of the most physical games we’ve had this year. … It’s exciting. You push and they push back. You push again.”

Just like in the playoffs.

For most of the game, the Sharks were pushing back without one of their best players, defenseman Rob Blake. Late in the first period, a Calgary shot bounced off his stick and hit him in the face. He left the Shark Tank and went to the hospital for treatment. No word yet on the extent of his injury.

The Sharks don’t have much time to stress about their loss to Calgary. Detroit, the defending Stanley Cup champion, comes to town Saturday. The Red Wings beat the Sharks 6-0 in Detroit last month and lost to the Sharks 4-2 in San Jose in October.

Thursday night’s game, McLellan said, was good preparation for what’s to come Saturday night.

“This had playoff intensity. You could feel it on the bench. You could feel it in the building,” he said.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Remembering the start of Rickey Henderson's Hall of Fame career

When I heard the news earlier today that Rickey Henderson had been elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame, I had a flashback to the first time I saw him play for the A’s.

It was 1979, and the A’s were in the midst of a 54-108 season. I was at the Coliseum with a handful of fans, enjoying the plentiful elbowroom when Henderson, then just 20 years old, came to bat. I’m not saying I knew then that he was destined to become a first ballot Hall of Famer and the best leadoff hitter in baseball history, but there was something about him that caught my eye.

First, there was that body. He was built like an NFL running back, compact, muscular and powerful. Then there was that batting stance, his right leg coiled, and his upper body angled sharply, putting his head all but over the inside corner of the plate.

When Henderson made contact, the ball exploded off his bat. And when he left the box, he shot down the line as if he were a world-class sprinter coming out of the blocks.

In 89 games that season, Henderson stole 33 bases, scored 49 runs, drew 34 walks drove in 26 runs and hit .274 with one home run and 13 doubles. He was just warming up.

Henderson stole 100 bases and scored 111 runs in 1980, his first full season in the majors. He walked 117 times, drove in 53 runs and hit .303 with nine homers and 22 doubles.

When his career finally ended after the 2003 season, with Henderson still campaigning for another shot, he had stolen more bases (1,406) and scored more runs (2,295) than anyone else in baseball history. He had also walked 2,190 times, second on the all-time list, collected 3,055 hits and slugged 297 home runs, a ridiculous number for a lead-off hitter.

No other leadoff hitter before or after Rickey had his combination of extraordinary speed, power, base-stealing instincts, batting eye and hitting stroke. No wonder he earned 94.8 percent of the vote in a Hall of Fame that clearly has the toughest standards in sports.

Looking back, I guess it didn’t take too long for all of us to see this day coming.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mills vs. Foster duel highlights St. Mary's victory over Santa Clara

St. Mary’s sophomore guard Patty Mills and Santa Clara freshman guard Kevin Foster have to keep meeting like this.

They put on a spectacular back-and-forth, high-wire show Friday night at a sold-out McKeon Pavilion in their first career confrontation.

Mills scored 31 points. So did Foster. Foster hit what looked to be a dagger 3 with just 12 seconds left, putting Santa Clara ahead 62-60. But Mills answered with one final trey, giving the Gaels a 63-62 victory against their archrival in both teams’ West Coast Conference opener.

“Patty hit a huge shot at the end,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “Their guy Foster had an outstanding game. We needed to do a better job on a guy like that. We knew he was a good player.”

Maybe so. But Foster, a freshman from Katy, Texas, didn’t come into the game with quite the resume that Mills owns. Mills starred for the Australian Olympic team last summer after earning first-team All-WCC honors as a freshman.

“I wasn’t really thinking about that,” Foster said. “I was thinking about my own game and trying to win the game.”

Apparently so. Because with 12 seconds left, Foster took a pass in the right corner and launched a 3-point rainbow with a Gael in his face. Nothing but net. That gave Foster 31 points for the night and the Broncos a 62-60 lead.

St. Mary’s caught a break when a pass from Mills to Diamond Simpson in traffic wound up going out of bounds under the bucket off a Bronco with 4.7 seconds left. Bennett called a time out and, naturally, set up a play for Mills.

Using screens from Omar Samhan and Simpson, Mills broke loose beyond the arc on the right wing, took a pass from Mickey McConnell and buried a fall-away 3 with 2.6 seconds left, putting the Gaels ahead 63-62.

Fans at McKeon went nuts, of course. The Gaels’ unofficial theme song, “Down Under,” by the Australian rock band “Men at Work” blasted away, as fans sang along. And when Santa Clara’s James Rahon missed a desperation shot from half-court at the buzzer, those fans started chanting, “Pat-tee! Pat-tee! Pat-tee!”

Mills had missed a pair of free throws with 47.5 seconds left. And he was just 3 of 12 from beyond the arc before shooting his final 3. As the shot left his hand, Mills thought of his ailing aunt, Sharyn, home in Australia.

“When I let it go, I knew it was good,” Mills said. “That was for her.”

Foster wasn’t on the court for Santa Clara’s final shot, and he was in and out of the lineup late in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Broncos and fortunately for the Gaels, Foster’s left calf cramped up.

“Thank goodness,” said a relieved Bennett. “He might have had 40.”

Bennett might have been right. Foster was on fire for most of the night. He made 11 of 19 shots from the field, 5 of 9 from beyond the arc and 4 of 5 from the line.

“These guys know they go as hard as they can until they can’t go any more,” Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said. “He tried.”

Foster used his quickness to get free for open shots, and the Broncos also took advantage of a St. Mary’s defense that was determined to stop 6-foot-11 center John Bryant.

“I was hot,” Foster said. “I made a couple shots. Coach Keating always said they’re going to come back to me if I made a couple shots.”

Mills had the scouting report on Foster. He knew he was good. But not 31-points good.

“We did a great job against Bryant,” Mills said. “I think we had a lot of focus on him. But then, out comes Foster. It’s hard to adjust, but to be a great team, you have to adjust. He got rolling. He’s very hard to guard.”

Grab your calendar and put an “X” on Feb. 7. That’s when the Mills and Foster meet again, this time at the Leavey Center in Santa Clara.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ravens' Reed shows the 49ers what they're missing

Does Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed have a fan club? If he does, sign me up. This is a player I’d definitely pay to see, and there aren’t many NFL free safeties in this era that I could say that about.

Reed put on another dazzling show Sunday in the Ravens’ 27-9 playoff victory over Miami. He intercepted two passes and, naturally, returned one of those 64 yards for a touchdown.

When Reed gets his hands on the ball, he has an uncanny knack for winding up in the end zone. He’s simply too quick, fast and clever for those offensive players who are forced to switch gears and try to tackle him.

Reed has now scored 12 touchdowns on either interception or fumble returns during his career. Earlier this year, he returned an interception 107 yards for a touchdown against Philadelphia. In 2004, he returned an interception 106 yards for a score against Cleveland.

If you’re a 49ers fan, Reed’s ridiculously good performance points to one of your team’s biggest needs approaching free agency and the draft. Starting 49ers free safety Mark Roman hasn’t intercepted a pass since 2006, his first season with the 49ers. He had one that year and has five in his nine NFL seasons. He has never returned an interception or fumble for a touchdown.

Of course there’s only one Ed Reed. This guy is a touchdown-scoring freak who has 43 career regular-season interceptions in just seven seasons. But even a poor man’s Ed Reed would be a huge upgrade for the 49ers.

They need more game-changing plays out of their free safety. Roman apparently doesn’t have the knowledge, instincts, hands or burst to make those big plays.

Reed always seems to be at the right place at the right time. On his first interception Sunday, he was basically playing center field when he tracked down an errant pass from Chad Pennington. He angled toward the left sideline, set up his blockers, then cut back across the grain and followed a convoy into the end zone.

Later in the game, Reed was lined up deep, but as Pennington dropped back, Reed read the play and, seemingly, Pennington’s mind. He knifed in front of a Pennington pass at about 100 mph for his second interception.

As that play unfolded, Reed was initially so far away from Pennington’s target that he probably thought Reed couldn’t possibly be a factor in the play. Reed, though, covers ground faster than most cornerbacks.

Reed will line up against the Tennessee Titans and quarterback Kerry Collins on Saturday in a divisional playoff game in Nashville. No one should be surprised if No. 20 winds up in the end zone again.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Utah makes a statement for West Coast football

Friday was a beautiful day for fans of West Coast football, myself included. I have no special connection to Utah. I went to Oregon. I don’t even know what a Ute is. But I love the fact that the Utes beat Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl.

Maybe for at least a day or so we can stop hearing about the greatness of the Southeastern Conference, about how much bigger and faster and better their athletes and teams are, especially compared to those “soft” West Coast teams not named USC.

Alabama spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the country. But before it knew what hit it Friday night, Alabama was down 21-0 to the undefeated Utes. Utah quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama.

How could these superhumans from the SEC lose to a team from Utah, especially in what was basically a home game for them in New Orleans at the Superdome?

Maybe Alabama coach Nick Saban had a bad hair day. Maybe the mighty Crimson Tide overlooked the Utes. Granted, Alabama was without suspended All-America left tackle Andre Smith. But isn’t an elite team from the great SEC supposed to be three or four deep at every position? And besides, Smith doesn’t play both ways, so he wouldn’t have helped Alabama’s defense.

From what I saw, Alabama couldn’t handle the Utes’ passing game or its pass rush. Utah blitzed and stunted and basically made life hell for Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson. Oh, those tricky Utes. But Utah also bottled up Alabama’s power running attack, holding Glen Coffee to 36 yards on 13 carries and Mark Ingram to 26 yards on eight carries.

I know the SEC is a great football conference. But it’s not the only conference. They play a little football west of the Rocky Mountains, too. The Pac-10, which admittedly had a down year, went 5-0 in its bowl games. USC beat Penn State, Oregon beat Oklahoma State, Oregon State beat Pittsburgh, Cal beat Miami and Arizona beat BYU.

Then Utah, of the we-get-no-respect Mountain West Conference, made an even bigger statement for West Coast football as it served a slice of humble pie to Alabama and the SEC.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Montgomery has Bears playing with passion and precision in win over Arizona

Take Lute Olson away from Arizona. Bring Mike Montgomery to Cal. What do you get?

You got your answer Friday night at Haas Pavilion.

Montgomery’s Bears opened the Pac-10 season with a 69-55 victory over a once mighty Arizona team that missed Olson last year when he took a “temporary” leave and miss him even more this year now that he has retired.

Yeah, you may get sick of hearing Dick Vitale talk and talk then talk some more about the importance of coaching in college basketball. But Vitale and his fellow talking heads have a point. A great college coach can transform a team and an entire program.

This is basically the same Cal team that struggled last season in Ben Braun’s final season. Well, the same team minus its best player, Ryan Anderson, currently earning a living in the NBA, and center DeVon Hardin.

Montgomery has the Bears playing with passion, intensity and intelligence.

“Coach Montgomery has brought a discipline to them that has really turned them into a good team,” Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell said.

The Bears had lost four straight and 18 of 20 games to Arizona before Friday night. During his final nine seasons at Stanford, Montgomery was 9-9 against Arizona. Now he’s won 10 of his past 19 games against the Wildcats.

“I think this validates we can play in this league,” Montgomery said.

It’s not as if the Bears haven’t had talent in the past. But players such as point guard Jerome Randle and shooting guard Patrick Christopher have flourished under Montgomery. They’ve bought what he’s selling about the importance of defense. And on the offensive end, they’ve found the proper balance of aggression and control.

Randle entered the game averaging a team-best 19.5 points per game and scored 14 against Arizona. But with Warriors executive vice president Chris Mullin watching from a courtside seat, it was Christopher who put on the most dazzling show.

Christopher scored a game-high 23 points, three shy of his career-high, mixing laser-like jump shots and acrobatic dunks. When he wasn’t scoring, Christopher was selling out on the other end, playing tough defense against both swingman Chase Budinger and point guard Nick Wise.

Budinger came into the game averaging 17.7 points and finished with just 9 on 4 of 16 shooting. Arizona was once one of the deepest teams in the country before Olson’s departure caused the talent pipeline to run dry. Now, if Budinger, Wise or center Jordan Hill has an off night, the Wildcats are in trouble.

“That intensity sparked our offensive game,” Christopher said of the Bears’ defense.

It took a while for the Bears to get going on offense, but in the second half they sliced apart Arizona’s 1-1-3 zone as if it consisted of five mannequins.

More often than not, one of the Bears’ forwards (usually Harper Kamp) took a pass near the free throw line, turned and hit a wide-open teammate (usually Christopher) cutting hard to the basket for an easy score. Kamp led the Bears with five assists.

“That was coach’s idea to put me up there,” Kamp said. “Whichever forward caught it up there, the idea was to turn and find the open man. My teammates made it easy for me. They’re great finishers.”

Montgomery, now a true believer in man-to-man defense, said he used to use the 1-1-3 zone and had a good idea how to attack it.

“We knew the middle was open,” Montgomery said. “From that point you do get cutters.”

“They definitely had a good game plan,” Pennell said.

The Bears improved to 12-2 under Montgomery. And with the Pac-10 decidedly weaker than it’s been for a few years, the Bears have a great chance to finish in the upper tier in the conference and notch 20-plus wins for the season. That’s the recipe for an NCAA Tournament berth.

If Braun were still Cal’s coach, I have a feeling we’d be hearing a lot from him about the losses of Anderson and Hardin and the Bears’ lack of size. I doubt if we’d be talking about a passionate, disciplined Cal team that’s a legitimate contender for an NCAA Tournament berth.

After the game, Kamp was asked about Montgomery’s impact.

“He just gives us confidence,” Kamp said. “We go in the huddle and come out with confidence every time.”