Serena goes for history at US Open

Serena Williams aims for history when she attempts to tie Steffi Graf for the most grand slams in the Open Era at the US Open. Can she also become the first player to win all four slams in a season since Graf? Associated Press/Getty Images

Tennis is in full swing starting Monday. The final grand slam of the year kicks off on August 31. A late start to the US Open. But the Big Apple is ready.

So are the players including Serena Williams, who will attempt to become the first player to win all four grand slams in the same year since Steffi Graf did it in 1988.The 33-year old number one ranked American has dominated this season posting a 48-2 match record while winning the last four slams including last year’s Open over gal pal Caroline Wozniacki. Williams says she’s ready for the challenge. It should be exciting to follow.

Who can stop her? Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka are the best candidates. Azarenka usually gives Serena the best matches. There are always twists and turns. She remains ranked outside the top 10. If put in the same section, the two-time Australian Open champion is a strong hard court player who can go toe to toe with Williams. However, it’s Serena’s serve that remains the biggest weapon on the WTA Tour. That combined with the will to win make her one of the all-time greats.

I’ll also give honorable mention to Petra Kvitova. But she’s better on grass where she’s won two Wimbledons. Though she is a big hitter albeit a bit streaky. You never know what to expect from the big Czech. Belinda Bencic recently defeated Williams in Toronto. The Swiss teen sensation is a player to watch. Hopefully, she won’t fizzle out like Canadian Genie Bouchard. Down to number 25, Bouchard has become an afterthought despite her looks. She has had an awful season losing 16 of 25 matches.

Wozniacki is always a candidate at her favorite tournament. A two-time runner up, the blonde Danish beauty is ranked fourth and is a crowd favorite. But her season has been disappointing. Particularly at the slams with her best result a fourth round showing at Wimbledon where she lost to Spanish finalist Garbine Muguruza. If you missed her photo shoot, shame shame. It would be nice to see her finally win one. We’ll see if she has another run in store.

The U.S. Open doesn’t release the bracket until Friday. But Williams is the top seed and expected to complete the grand slam. Not the Serena slam. This is much bigger. She’s also going for her 22nd major which would match Graf for the most all-time in the Open Era. Margaret Court won a record 24. It would be great to see Serena tie Graf and have a cool ceremony featuring the former number one ranked German. One can only hope.


Random Thoughts: Yankees, Mets and Baseball

AL MVP front runner Josh Donaldson has carried the Blue Jays to the top of the AL East. Associated Press/Getty Images

I’m bringing back Random Thoughts. It originated from Hitting Back. That is the old blog run off NYSportsDay. Today’s theme is the Yankees, Mets and baseball. So let’s get to it.

1.It’s nice to have two good teams in this town. Baseball hasn’t been kind to New York City the past couple of years. The Yankees spoiled us for two decades. The playoffs are no longer a lock. Competition has gotten better shifting to small markets who are run well such as the Royals and Pirates. Both of who will again be heard from this October. The Astros appear to be on the verge of winning the AL West and joining the fracas. The Blue Jays were big buyers at the deadline and have vaulted into first in the AL East. Toronto hasn’t seen a winner since 1993. The Cubs are good again. The Mets are back. It makes for what should be a compelling October.

2.When they don’t hit the ball out, the Bronx Bombers remain too one dimensional. With Mark Teixeira banged up and A-Rod showing his age, the offense has been non-existent. The only player hitting is Carlos Beltran. Healthier, he’s had a good second half. Brian McCann has been better in Year 2. The issue is that you can’t rely on the home run. That’s always been my one criticism of Joe Girardi. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner haven’t been utilized enough. Their speed isn’t used due to all too predictable station to station baseball that doesn’t win in October assuming the Yanks make it.

3.Ever since Wilmer Flores cried after thinking he was traded, everything has gone right for the Mets. Not only did Sandy Alderson turn down a trade that would’ve sent Flores and Zach Wheeler to Milwaukee for Carlos Gomez. But he then turned around and dealt for slugger Yoenis Cespedes. He’s been brilliant since hitting over 300 with seven dingers and 20 RBI’s in 22 games highlighted by the three-homer seven RBI game against the Rockies in that joke of a stadium. Flores has hit blasting a pair of homers in a record setting win over the Phillies in which the Amazin’s set a team record with eight dingers. Suddenly scoring runs, they have a healthy five and a half game lead over the overrated Nationals. Unlike what Jayson Werth said, it’s the Mets division to lose.

4.The Amazin’ summer has fans excited about their team for the first time in nearly a decade. With a pair of aces in Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, they have the pitching that makes them a serious contender. Rookie Noah Syndergaard is still learning and finally won a road game. Jon Niese has been better in the second half. The bullpen is better since the acquisition of Tyler Clippard who has set up for closer Jeurys Familia. It’s them, the Cubs and Pirates who are the teams to watch this Fall.

5.No disrespect to the Cardinals who continue to win games like a daily ritual. They lead the majors with a 80-45 record. Michael Wacha has developed into a ace that’s not talked about. Matt Carpenter remains a constant and youngsters Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are players to watch. Even without ace Adam Wainwright and first base slugger Matt Adams, St. Louis is again here. It’s amazing. You can’t kill them. Just imagine if the Mets have to go through them like 2006. The Cardinals are The Terminators of baseball.

6.I like what I’ve seen from Greg Bird and Luis Severino so far. Good on Brian Cashman for not parting with either or Aaron Judge for rentals. It would’ve been a mistake to trade Jorge Mateo, who has 81 stolen bases in his first full pro season in Single A. Indeed, there is a bright future in the Bronx.

7.Just about every day, Josh Donaldson is hitting the ball out or driving in big runs for the Jays. With a higher average, more home runs and a major league leading 100 RBI’s, that’s your AL MVP.

8.Mike Trout is fantastic. But if he wins MVP, it would be a crime. The Angels aren’t even in the playoffs. Trout is the best player in the game. Forget his bat. It’s all about his defense which is on display nightly.

9.Dallas Keuchel should win AL Cy Young. If you’ve never heard of him, shame on you. That said, I still believe Chris Sale got robbed last year. If he pitched on a good team, he’d have won one already.

10.One of my pet peeves is when outfielders throw home when they have no chance of nailing the runner. How many times do we have to see fundamentally poor defense which allows hitters to take the extra base?

11.Regarding Larry Bowa’s blowup at plate umpire Dan Bellino for Mets reliever Hansel Robles quick pitching Darin Ruf, he’s right. By rule, the quick pitch is allowed. But pitchers should give batters time to get set. The new rules so favor pitchers that they’re taking advantage. Jeff Francoeur explained it perfectly:

“Let the guy get in the box.” “My whole thing is ‘Give the guy time to get in the box and then pitch.'” He cited Familia who did it exactly “like he was supposed to but he gave guys time to be set and then he went.”

12.As for Bowa going off on Daniel Murphy for the bat flip, it’s something we see too much of. Whether it’s batters celebrating home runs or guys such as Carlos Gomez showing frustration when their team is up big, it’s easy to see why opponents get riled up. Though the Post’s Joel Sherman is right when he says do something about it on the scoreboard. I just don’t like showing up the opposition. But that’s what it’s become. It’s not changing.

13.The Yanks picked quite a time to have a dreadful home stand.

14.Kris Bryant is now the front runner for NL Rookie Of The Year. With a two homer game and some heroics at Wrigley Field, he’s been as advertised. The young third baseman is a stud who’ll be a superstar. It should be fun to see how he performs on the big stage.

15.I was wrong about Jon Lester. He and Jake Arrieta have teamed to form a great 1-2 punch at the top of the Cubs rotation. Speaking of Arrieta, he’s 5-0 in August with an ERA below 0.60. You think the Orioles want a do over?

16.As good as the NL is, it also has some of the worst teams. The Rockies, Phillies, Marlins and Reds are punching bags. At least in the AL, doormats Oakland and Cleveland are competitive. Even Boston is with their lineup featuring future star Mookie Betts.

17.Kinda sad about Hanley Ramirez already being moved to first base after the failed outfield experiment. He went from an All-Star shortstop to a player without a position pretty quickly. He is one of the most talented players but now the Red Sox paid him all that money and don’t know where to play him. Jeez.

18.Remember when Joc Pederson was a lock for NL ROY? I regret trading for him. I could care less about his OBP when he can’t hit and doesn’t play versus lefties.

19.Only in this era can one dimensional sluggers last. There are way too many Rob Deers. It would be nice if more players could hit for average and get more credit for being a professional hitter. Remember when doubles were king and Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn were hitting for ridiculous averages? What about the days of the stolen base when Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman tore up the base paths. That is missed.

20.If only Paul Goldschmidt didn’t play in obscurity with Arizona. He’s hitting .330 with 24 homers, 93 RBI’s and 20 stolen bases. The 27-year old is an old school superstar who deserves more recognition.

21.Unless something changes, it’ll be two consecutive years a Dodger pitcher sweeps the Cy Young and MVP. Zach Greinke is 13-3 with a major league best 1.67 ERA. None of the MVP candidates have stood out. Bryce Harper and Buster Posey are probably the best hitters but it looks like their teams will miss the postseason. The aforementioned Goldschmidt won’t get it. Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez play for the Rockies. Former MVP Andrew McCutchen is the best player on the Pirates. But .299-19-81 with 72 runs scored doesn’t scream MVP. I love him as a player though and maybe this is the year he carries Pittsburgh.

22.It’s ridiculous that three teams from the NL Central will make the playoffs and two will play in a one-game elimination with better records than division winners. Change the rule!

23.Does anyone think the Dodgers will do anything this October? I don’t see it. Not unless Clayton Kershaw brings it and Yasiel Puig proves he’s not overrated. Think LA doesn’t miss Matt Kemp?

24.Two of my favorite players are Dee Gordon and Jose Altuve. Two elite second basemen who can hit, run and field. They play the game the right way.

25.Robinson Cano isn’t having a great year but did make history by becoming the first player to hit 30 doubles in each of his first 11 seasons. It’s not working out the way he envisioned so far in Seattle. At 32, his numbers are down. Even with a strong second half, he’ll probably wind up just shy of .300 with 20 homers and 90 RBI’s. Are his best seasons behind him? If so, Seattle paid an awful lot for a fading star. With 30 more hits, Cano will reach 2000. He turns 33 on October 22. Can he reach 3000?

26.Who is Michael Pineda? That’s what more Yankee fans need to be asking.

27.C.C. Sabathia is probably done for the season. He tried hard and pitched better recently. But in his mid-30’s with a lot of weight, injuries and inconsistency will continue for the former Yankee ace. He’s had a great career. But let’s face it. It’s been over for some time. Time for the Yankee organization to face the facts. Sabathia will always have that world championship.

28.Was there better theater than David Wright hitting the first pitch he saw into the left field upper deck after returning?

29.Delino Deshields, Jr. is a good player for the Rangers. The son of former Expo Delino Deshields, he doesn’t get much ink. But like Dad, he brings speed to the top of the Texas order. He’s stolen 22 bases and has seven triples. Given up on by the Astros, it looks like Deshields, Jr. has found a home. Playing center field for the other team in Texas, he might even get a chance to face Houston in the postseason. Pretty cool story.

30.Final thought. Andy Pettite and Jorge Posada were two important Yankees. Part of the Core Four, they were an integral part of great teams that won world championships. Neither was great. I’d put each in the very good category. It’s not their fault that the Yankees retired their numbers. So don’t blame them. Put it where it belongs on the organization who did it for the fanfare. Let’s face it. Sports are a big business. Drawing is part of it. Retiring their numbers guaranteed that. They became the 20th and 21st Yankees to have their number retired. Derek Jeter will become the 22nd. The only difference is he was great and is a Hall Of Fame lock. Retiring numbers should be reserved for legends. Especially when it comes to the Yankees. Case closed.

What ‘If’ The 1994 Baseball Season Was Completed

Matt Williams was front and center on Sports Illustrated in 1994 hitting 43 home runs during the strike shortened season.
Matt Williams was front and center on Sports Illustrated in 1994 hitting 43 home runs during the strike shortened season.

In sports, there’s always the wonderment of yesterday. What ‘if’ this happened instead of that. That’s always been on my mind when it comes to the 1994 baseball season.

On August 12, 1994 the Players Association went on strike thanks to the stubborn leadership of evildoer Donald Fehr. It resulted in the rest of the season being canceled including the postseason making it the first time there was no World Series since 1904. With it came a crashing halt to the pursuit of Roger Maris’ home run record of 61. Three star players all had shots at it. Two days earlier, Matt Williams his his league-leading 43rd against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Ken Griffey, Jr. had 40 and Frank Thomas had 38. Pre-juicer Barry Bonds had 37. NL MVP Jeff Bagwell had 39 but broke a bone in his left hand.

“I hope the sucker lasts three to five weeks, at least,” then Astros skipper Terry Collins said in regards to the strike which ruined one of the best seasons. If only logic had prevailed.

How good was the ’94 season? Not only did you have supposedly clean sluggers chasing Maris but Tony Gwynn was trying to become the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400. Instead, he finished six points shy hitting .394 to lead the majors.

“To this day, I really believe I’d have hit .400,”  he said a few years back in a feature Yahoo’s Big League Stew did back in 2010 recalling his chances. Of course, it’s impossible to say whether Gwynn would’ve become the first player since Teddy Ballgame turned the trick in 1941.

That also was the year the Expos had the best record. They were 74-40 (.649) atop the NL East by six games over the Braves. A great team that featured Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez and John Wetteland. It was easily Montreal’s best team. They were robbed of the opportunity to win a World Series.

So too was my favorite player Don Mattingly. The 1994 Yankees had the second best record at 70-43 leading the AL East by six and a half games. A team that also featured Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Wade Boggs, Danny Tartabull, Mike “Opposite Field HR” Stanley and ace Jimmy Key. Remarkably, Steve Howe was the closer and Bob Wickman set up. They were managed by Buck Showalter.

I’ll never forget when the work stoppage ended the following Spring and Showalter led his team out to cheers at The Stadium. They made the postseason that Fall in my freshman year at Fairleigh Dickinson in Madison, New Jersey. Mattingly hit .417 in his only October hitting that memorable home run as called by Gary Thorne who beckoned, “Hang onto the roof! Good-bye! Home-run!”

Yeah. Those were the days. Jim Leyritz hitting that walk off in extras to put them up 2-0 before the roof caved in at the King Dome. I was heartbroken by ALDS MVP Edgar Martinez’ series clinching extra base hit that scored a flying Griffey from first. Twenty-one years later, I still don’t know what Jack McDowell was doing on the mound instead of Wetteland. Granted. He struggled mightily. But come on. It was an awful decision.

Who knows. Maybe Buck would’ve survived had they won that series. But how would that have changed history? Of course, handpicked George Steinbrenner choice Joe Torre managed the Yanks to four World Championships. Buck’s still never won one despite doing great jobs in Arizona and Baltimore. I met him once when I worked at ESPN and thanked him. He was gracious.

Looking back at ’94, I can’t help but wonder if that Yankee team would’ve gone to the World Series. Mattingly’s best chance to win and it got canceled. The Expos with all those stars and they got canceled. Williams with that classic swing driving No.43 to the opposite field in the ivy 18 away from Maris and canceled. Griffey, Jr. with that sweet swing up to 40 with 50 games left and canceled. Greg Maddux had a 1.56 earned run average and 16 wins in his second season with the Braves winning his third straight NL Cy Young. He won four in a row from ’92 thru ’95. One of the great pitchers of that era.

It was exciting to be a fan. Anything was possible. Too bad we’ll never know how the final script went.