Friday, October 2, 2015

Week 5: UNDER THE LIGHTS

The sun dipped behind the press box, the lights shone on the field, and, with the eyes of the nation upon Northwestern in Big Ten Network Regional Action and with a fearsome two-tarp crowd, the Wildcats narrowly defeated Ball State to a deafening chorus. Northwestern is 4-0 and the Associated Press has declared them #16 in the country as they prepare for the perfunctory Big Ten play as a warm-up to an all-but-inevitable national championship.

Northwestern opened the game with a touching tribute to Classic Northwestern Football. The offense stagnated and turned the ball over, and the defense looked solid but more vulnerable than the top-ranked tackle wall that consumed its first three opponents. Ball State's freshman quarterback Riley Neal extended drives. More importantly, he continually hucked the ball in the direction of Jordan Williams, an eight-foot colossus with net hands who continually out-leaped Wildcat defenders for ridiculous catches.

Jordan Williams, artist's rendition


In the third quarter, though, the offense switched on. Clayton Thorson looked like a different quarterback, spreading the ball around, and letting Dan Vitale terrorize Ball State defenders and confuse Ball State coaches who presumably spent a week scouring arcane tomes of football lore to figure out what a superback was before deciding it was a myth and then found out only too late that it is a slightly different word to use for a tight-endish player. This is a successful tactic, and the Wildcats should come up with unnecessarily weird-sounding names for all of their positions, such as renaming guards to Man-Walls and the quarterback to the Unholy Shaman of the Ninth Eye.

IF YOU WANT TO PLAY THE UNHOLY SHAMAN OF THE NINTH EYE
POSITION YOU NEED TO MAKE QUICK DECISIONS AND GET THE 
BALL OUT TO YOUR PODMEN AND YOUR KRAKUS GROUP IF YOU 
WANT TO WIN GAMES IN (SEARCHES DESPERATELY FOR FALLEN 
CUE CARD HOLDER WHILE HE PAUSES LIKE A DEER IN HEADLIGHTS 
BEFORE AN INTERN RACES TO HOLD UP THE CARD) THE NATIONAL 
FOOTBALL LEAGUE 

Ball State came back to pull within five, but the game never seemed in doubt. The 'Cats did suffer some injuries. Standout tackle Geoff Mogus left on a stretcher. Safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro also left the game. Pat Fitzgerald has remained characteristically tight-lipped about his injured players, although at press time BYCTOM has been able to secure a confirmation from him that some of his players may be made of molecules.
It was a harrowing win, but let us remember that we are talking about Northwestern football. Let the football gluttons sit around in their tuxedos grousing about not winning by enough points and intriguing about playoff committees. Northwestern has started undefeated for the third time in nearly two decades and has yet to lose a game through a spectacular series of football misfortunes.

Over the course of following Northwestern, I thought I had experienced 
every single heartbreaking way to lose a football game. In the past two weeks, 
the Texas Longhorns saw a spirited comeback end when their kicker was 
 temporarily possessed by the Spirit of John Carney and then the next week 
were done in by a hideously mishandled routine punt. If the Longorns, the 
Habsburgs of college football, have experienced decades of football gluttony, 
this is their period of football gout 

BIG TEN RECKONING

Northwestern has beaten two good teams already, but the real season begins on Saturday with Big Ten play. The Big Ten West is hardly considered a crucible; instead, it is more often portrayed as a sad relic of Midwest, where the football factory has closed and rusted and now only manufactures fullbacks on back order since 1996 and rusted knock-off spread offenses that falter when weak shouldered quarterbacks, originally designed to dive heedlessly into an interwar leather-helmet ruck, now heave the ball in the direction of nowhere.

 The Northwestern-Minnesota game features two excellent defenses with suspect passing games. Conventional wisdom says that we should be in for another exciting game of field possession, dive plays, and punting. Hunter Niswander already attempted 10 punts in the Duke game. Any more double-digit punt games and he should be allowed to ride out onto Ryan Field on a custom-built punt-based motorcycle, his punting cape billowing behind him majestically while the marching band blares his majestic punt anthem.

Northwestern/Minnesota probably will not reach the heights of the 1939 Texas Tech/
Centenary College game, which featured 77 combined punts, including 36 by Tech punter 
Charlie Calhoun. The amount of punting is mind-boggling in a game that happened after the 
Spanish-American War. Were the teams handing off to a punter in the backfield who surveyed 
the defense and immediately punted? Was there a rule that any person involved in the game, 
including spectators and faculty members, were invited to stop play at any time to punt? Was 
Shreveport, Louisiana temporarily engulfed by a disruption in the space-time continuum 
that trapped a community in a maelstrom of endless punting and they could have been in 
there for years and have no way of knowing? It is also important to note that the Centenary 
College's team was known as the "College Gents" which is the puntingest football team name 
possible. 

The game also featured 14 fumbles 

I don't anticipate a nonsensical paelolithic Big Ten puntfest because I have walked this Earth and I know that Minnesota/Northwestern games are a cauldron of insanity. These games have ended with hail marys, walk-off interception returns, 100-yard kickoff returns, and more improbable reversals of fortune than the last five minutes of a movie where a villain thinks he has successfully killed Arnold Schwarzenegger. I expect this game will end with the discovery of a heretofore-unknown NCAA rule that football games do not end until a team has successfully telegraphed the NCAA Head Office in the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago even though it no longer exists, prompting donors to attempt to build the hotel first. The game will be completed in several dozen years after the lawsuits are finalized.

THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WHAT IS TECHNICALLY THE PLAYOFFS

I am a Cubs pessimist. I am a Cubs miserablist. I am a Cubs doom-sayer wandering around Wrigleyville in a sandwich board prophesying millennia of non-championship baseball, tormenting fans with occasional heart-breaking misery until they embrace the sweet release of death or become Yankees fans. 

 Now, the Cubs face a do-or-die Wildcard quasi-playoff invented by the champagne and goggle industry to have the honor of facing slaughter by the mirthless St. Louis juggernaut that trains by stomping on hearts. They will, barring a miraculous showing against the Pirates from a Reds team that ended its season two weeks ago and is now fielding their social media interns, travel to a raucous PNC Park to face an excellent Pirates team. The consensus is that the Cubs have the upper hand; they will send out Jake Arrieta, who has ascended to some Olympian plane of pitching transcendence that has made him nearly impossible to hit for months at the cost of only his facial expressions (Arrieta is scheduled to start Friday night; there is still time for him to suffer the entire litany of Springfield softball ringer tragedies before the playoff game on October 7). This is precisely the point where the impending Cub calamity is so glaringly obvious that Euripedes has already dismissed it as "on the nose" in a snarky blog post. 

 On the other hand, who cares? 

This Cubs season has been far too much of a joy to ruin with worry of an impending collapse. The Cubs have spent the past several years in an intentional death-spiral, slowly siphoning the fun out of the team like a python constricting the life out of a drunk, swamp-curious Floridian. The unfortunate reality of American sports teams, which favor bottoming out with no consequences, especially when you play in a tourist attraction guaranteed to draw during the summer despite sending an army of Darwin Barneys and Junior Lakes to helplessly flail at baseballs, nearly demands it. 

 The turnaround was not supposed to happen this fast. Kris Bryant, the probable Rookie of the Year, has been a star since he was brought up from Iowa awaiting the end of Theo Epstein's corn prison service time imbroglio. Addison Russell has been a revelation with the glove at short. Javier Baez and Jorge Soler have missed time with injuries, but both have returned towards the end of the season to clobber things. And Kyle Schwarber is a moon-faced stump person who has constantly entertained fans by finding new and more exciting ways to fall down and also smash baseballs into uncharted galaxies.

The team has been led by wacky old Joe Maddon who marries unconventional baseball tactics with whimsical entertainments for six-year-old birthday parties including dress-up days, zoo animals, and a magician. Anthony Rizzo could be making a case for an MVP-type season if Bryce Harper did not exist.

Harper (r) fights off Jonathan Papelbon's literal attempt to strangle him 
 according to baseball's unwritten rules of monster-violence. "Noose" 
 Papelbon plans to start a radio show with his twin brothers Garrotte and 
Throttle called Choke Talk where everyday Americans call in with problems 
and, after uproarious banter, one of them asks "have you tried choking 
 someone?" and then the brothers gently rib each other about the times 
 they've strangled and head-butted ineffectively 

The most curious part of the season has been Starlin Castro's transformation from the worst everyday player in baseball to a genuine force with the bat, hitting .403/.429./.708 in September. Castro was pulled as the everyday shortstop in August and his resurgence has been difficult to explain. But these wild fluctuations make up the Starlin Castro experience. Castro doesn't walk and, until recently, had shown sporadic power. His entire worth is based on fluctuations in batted-ball placement. He is a no true outcomes player. Starlin Castro performs as a baseball casino, letting the capricious whims of fate guide his game whether hitting slap singles or flipping a coin as a ball barrels towards him in the infield to decide if he makes an impressive play or attempts to fling it to the cutoff man in a sixteen-inch softball game happening at the lakefront park. 

 As much fun as the Cubs have been this season, the ultimate goal of a World Series seems unlikely this year, even if they get past the Pirates. Jake Arrieta is only one man and he cannot not pitch every day. Jon Lester has had a fine season of his own, but remains hampered by a bizarre inability to throw to first base, his feeble batting, and his use of David Ross as a personal catcher. Ross, a grizzled gray-beard who looks like a warrant officer on British frigate torn between his loyalty to a captain going insane on the high seas and the men fomenting mutiny to return the ship to combat, is one of my favorite players, but he swings the bat like a crusty Napoleonic naval officer who has never heard of baseball.

Sailing Master David Ross ponders a plot to lock the skipper in the brig
after the captain has disregarded RN orders in order to pursue the Captain's
sworn enemy Louis-Antoine-Cyprien Infernet across the seas

The rotation after Lester and Arrieta remains suspect. Jason Hammel, who pitched a strong first half, has imploded. Before the All-Star break, he sported a 2.86 ERA. After, his ERA ballooned to 5.10, he has pitched only 67 innings, and opponents have mashed a robust .856 OPS against him. That is an entire team of Kris Bryants. Kyle Hendricks has been better, but his 95 ERA+ (just slightly below an MLB-average 100) inspires little fear. The Cubs have cobbled games out of an armada of former starters in the bullpen, including Travis Wood and mid-season pickups Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill. In order for the Cubs to win, they will need Lester and Arrieta to be essentially perfect for every start. 

 And should the Cubs reverse every single defining feature of their team for the past ten decades and defeat the Pirates, they will be forced to play the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals have had an incredible season. They lost numerous key players to injury for all or part of the season including superstar pitcher Adam Wainwright, but have steamrolled to baseball's top record. Talismanic catcher Yadier Molina is out with a thumb injury sustained when Anthony Rizzo slid into him. Starter Carlos Martinez will not pitch in the postseason. This will not stop them. The Cardinals are essentially a Terminator factory of anonymous boring dudes sent to mirthlessly destroy baseballs. Their season has been a commendable testament to resilience and organizational depth. To fans of other Central teams leveled by the Cardinals juggernaut over the past decade, it is also a depressing paean to their inevitability. Facing the Cardinals in the playoffs is like receiving a tax audit, an impending bureaucratic nightmare that cannot avoided or triumphed against.
Unsurprisingly, Wainwright has returned months ahead of schedule to join the 
Cardinals' playoff bullpen. I suspect that the Cardinals have cloned all of their 
players and have only been waiting for the first opportunity to unleash this version 
of Waino Mk. II in order to defray suspicion instead of replacing him immediately 
and while this may seem impossible, far-fetched, and taken from the opening 
segment of the crappy latter-day Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Sixth Day, 
may I remind you that the Cardinals' cheating scandal from earlier this season involved 
computers, case closed

Meaningful baseball has returned to the North Side for the first time in seven years. It does not matter that the Cubs will be playing in a truncated, bastardized play-in game seemingly designed by a malevolent baseball deity for Cubbish heartbreak. The season has been too enjoyable to be undone by a single disappointing loss. The Cubs, with their young bats, piles of free agent money, and bats still lurking in the minors seem poised to remain relevant for years to come; it is only then, with sky-high expectations, can Cub fans be properly and traditionally broken.

GOPHER INVASION 

The Gophers started the season with high expectations of Big Ten West contention. They opened with an encouraging loss against championship contender TCU, but have struggled against Colorado State, Kent State, and Ohio, defeating each by only a field goal. Minnesota's fearsome defense has also suffered attrition, more than Northwestern's. A win against a ranked Northwestern team would instantaneously restore Minnesota's status as a team to be reckoned with in the division while giving Northwestern fans flashbacks to the squandered 2013 season. A Northwestern win, though, will set the Wildcats up for a showdown with angry football muppet Jim Harbaugh's frisky Michigan team at the Big House for bowl eligibility.

 It is October, Northwestern is undefeated, and the Chicago Cubs are riding high into the postseason. Perhaps the most dangerous thing is not the tough Minnesota defense or presumed Pirates playoff starter Gerritt Cole. The most dangerous thing is the possibility of a comet striking the Earth.

1 comment:

Steve Larek said...

Willy the Wildcat is not sufficiently substantial for the task at hand this week, so we must enlist an ersatz being and celebrity to begin creating sufficient vitriol. Here you go:

http://cdn.meme.am/instances/500x/55631993.jpg