Thursday Thoughts - Take Off to the Great White North, Hoser!

Wild fires. Smog alerts. Record heat. Paris' jail time.

I need an escape hatch.

So what do I do?... I've got two words for you: Minny. Sota.

I'm out of here. I'm going to where the weather is cool, the air is clear and names like Oglethorpe and Sorensen dominate the phone books. I'm going to Minnesota.

And what's the best part? I'm going to get to see my first Gopher baseball game at legendary Seibert Field. The U will take on Ohio State in a four-game set Friday-through-Sunday. And if I get the chance, I'm going to go ahead and try to sneak into Mariucci Arena, where the best college hockey program in the country plays. This should be fun. I'm counting the minutes until my flight takes off.

In a word, YES!

This should still be a great college baseball weekend all across the country as we'll crown another conference champion (Patriot League playoffs), a host of 1-versus-2 matchups are on the docket and of course, jockeying for post-season bids and positions continues in earnest. What a great weekend to be a college baseball fan.

I'm into it. How 'bouts you? Let's get it on.

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So in honor of my trek to the land of 10,000 lakes - and by the way, I've heard the actual lake count is higher than that - let's start off with a short feature about the land of the Norse.

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Since we always seem to do the usual "Best Of's" and "Greatest Ever's" and stuff like that, let's try a little something different this time... The Worst Moments in Minnesota Sports History:

5- The Big Push.
And yes, it should be called the Big Push instead of The Hail Mary (which this is its first iteration as referred to that name.). In the 1975 NFC title game, Drew Pearson pushes Viking DB Nate Wright to catch Roger Staubach's last minute bomb to score the winning touchdown for Dallas. Years later, Pearson admitted to the penalty. And where did that orange that came flying by during the play, come from? Should've been a yellow flag of course.

4- The 2005 Viking Sex Party Cruise.
As I've always maintained, give a pro athlete a reason to act like an idiot and most of the time they will. Hookers, strippers, sex acts, public urination, etc. joined them on the three-hour tour. What? Was having Randy Moss as the face of the franchise for seven years not bad enough?

3- The North Stars move South.
Of all the evils of pro sports, having a franchise pull up roots and move to another city is always the most egregious offense. But to take a hockey team out of the biggest hockey state in America and move it to... to... Texas?! Blasphemy. Norm Green will surely burn in Hades for that one.

2- Four lost Super Bowls.
Two images forever burned into Viking fans minds have to be Willie Brown's slo-motion INT return and Chuck Foreman's tear-streamed eye black at the end of the fourth Super Bowl loss. Thankfully, Buffalo came along and took the stigma of big game losers away.

1- Replacing Dave Winfield.
In the 1973 College World Series semifinal, Winfield, then a pitcher/outfielder for the Gophers, was mowing down USC, striking out 15 batters and giving his cohorts a 7-0 lead after eight innings. But that's when Dick "Chief" Seibert decided to go to his bullpen. Alas, with two outs in the 9th, the Trojans ended up scoring eight runs to propel them to the national championship game and the eventual title.

(As usual, these are just my thoughts, I welcome your entries.)

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Just missing the list?---
- Dan Monson's horrible regime as basketball coach.
- The day Frank Quilicy was named head coach was the day the Twins went from division winners to also-rans in the 70s.
- And how could we leave out the one-year stint of military-like Vikes head coach Les Steckel? He was so bad he forced Bud Grant to drop his fishing rod and come out of retirement, which consequently just missed the list as well.


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Scorching-hot, under-the-radar style---
We all know about the Long Beach State's, Florida State's and San Diego's that are the hottest teams in the Top 30 rankings. But what about the non-ranked teams that have been playing lights out, even if the national lights aren't on them? Here you go:

- Western Carolina (34-15)
Streak: 19-4 since March 30th.
What it means: A lot. Included in that recent run is a 15-3 SoCon mark since losing three straight at CofC at the end of March. And check out their non-conference victims: Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Georgia, Clemson and two mid-weekers vs. Ohio State this week.

- Oral Roberts (29-14)
Streak: 14-1 since April 6th.
What it means: Other than the win at Long Beach State that started the streak, it doesn't mean much because they always dominate the Mid-Con anyway. So no biggie.

- Winthrop (30-19)
Streak: 8-0
What it means: Shhhhh. Don't tell anyone, but you know all that hype Coastal Carolina has received? They're still behind the Eagles (14-1) in the Big South. The emergence of Jason Franzblau (8-3, 2.90) has helped immensely.

- St. John's (34-13)
Streak: 16-1 since Tax Day.
What it means: Actually, the Red Storm are 34-6 since starting on an 0-7 cold streak. But now they are at the top of the Big East and looking at a possible No. 2 seed in the NCAAs.

- Rutgers (31-16)
Streak: 19-4 since April Fool's Day.
What it means: The Knights are tied atop the Big East with St. John's (16-5) and have been on a tear since losing 2-of-3 to the Johnnies. Tough series at Pitt and Villanova but a regular season title is possible, which should lock in at at-large bid.

- Mount St. Mary's (30-17)
Streak: 18-2 since April 10th.
What it means: For the first time in modern memory, the Mountaineers are leading the Northeast Conference this late in the season. The current 7-game win streak and the 30 wins are both the best since the Mount went to D-1 play in 1989.

- Iowa (27-15)
Streak: 12-0 since April 21st.
What it means: The Hawkeyes have now vaulted up to 3rd place in the Pac 10 and nearly assured themselves of a berth in the 6-team Big 10 tournament.

- Manhattan (31-13)
Streak: 27-3 since March 25th.
What it means: It means the Jaspers are ready for an NCAA upset-ridden encore. On the morning of the 25th, they were 4-10 and hadn't played a game in eight days because of rain. And now look.

- Bethune-Cookman (30-21)
Streak: 15-0 since April 8.
What it means: It means another MEAC title in runaway fashion for the Wildcats, that's what. Two interesting notes, 1) B-CC has beaten three big non-conference names (Stetson, Jacksonville, Florida Atlantic), and 2) they've only played five 9-inning games in that span (seven mercy rule games).

- Creighton (34-12)
Streak: 15-1 since April 8th.
What it means: Since the MoValley is rated as the 8th best conference, you have to figure the 2nd place team is in decent shape for an at-large bid. Plus, CU beat 3rd-place Evansville 2-of-3, so that's also to the Jays advantage.

- Delaware (25-18)
Streak: 17-2 since April 7.
What it means: Very, very quietly, the Blue Hens (14-9) have crept up on VCU and ODU in the CAA. Now in 3rd place, UD visits the Rams (tied for 1st at 15-8) for a huge series this weekend that could be a season-changer.

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Wish I had a ticket---
Some great down-to-the-wire matchups this coming weekend in college baseball-land. If you live near one of these weekend sets, you better go out and get yourself a ticket, or run the risk of being called a college baseball turncoat.

1-Ohio State (28-17) at Minnesota (33-10)
Of course, this is number one on the list. I can't wait to see it. But to be honest, these teams have had some disappointing developments of late. Ohio State - who, to begin with returned all four weekend starters, two of which were All American candidates - has been a big disappointment this season. Already this week, they dropped a pair of home games to Western Carolina. Meanwhile, the Gophers were sitting pretty at No. 21 in the RPI last week. Then, last place Northwestern came to town and took two of four at Seibert Field. Next thing you know, The U is now down at No. 40. Major-League-Ouch!

2- Patriot League Playoffs at Lafayette
Army (24-21) vs. Navy (35-19)
the winner vs. Lafayette (30-17)
I know another NCAA berth is going to be awarded here in Easton, P.A. and all. But I swear, I think I'd just want to be there when the two service academies go at it with their aces Nick Hill (6-3, 1.78) and Mitch Harris (8-4, 2.30) commanding the bump. That should be awesome. Honestly, neither has the quality arm depth to take two from Lafayette. See you in the Big Dance, Leos.

3- UCLA (28-19) at No. 8 Arizona State (34-12)
Should this one really be close? I mean, look at ASU's stats: .357 team average. 53 home runs. .450 on-base %. Hell, even a .978 fielding percentage. Frosh All American Mike Leake (10-1, 3.20) and junkballer Josh Satow (9-3, 2.17) on the mound. Brett Wallace (.435-13-66) and Kiel Roling (.397-11-50) meting out pain on every baseball. And look at the Bruins record. C'mon!... But this is a mentally tough Bruin team. If any team in the country can take a punch, it's UCLA. They're the Joe Frazier of college baseball. So for that reason alone, don't discount this rag-tag bunch that's leading the Pac 10 at 12-3. I'd still have to say, I'm leaning toward the Devils getting their due here.

4- No. 26 Clemson (32-17) at No. 2 Florida State (42-7)
The disappointing Tigers travel to take on the unchallenged Seminoles. That's it in a nutshell. Despite having one of the most talented pitching staffs in America coming into the season, the Tigers are getting beat by teams like Furman, Boston College and Elon lately. And I don't know how they've done it, but FSU has won just about everything this year, but still haven't looked at any weekend result and said to myself, "Hmmmm. THAT'S impressive." This team is good. But I'm still looking for "great" to emerge.

5- No. 25 Cal State Fullerton (29-17) at No. 11 Wichita State (42-14)
Back in January this looked like a dynamite series. Now? Well, it's a legitimacy shot for the Titans if they can come through. Since an impressive weekend series win over Rice, CSUF has gone 17-13 and had inner turmoil. For the Shockers, it's a way to make amends for a poor showing at Northern Iowa and a mid-week loss to South Alabama. WSU's bid for a home regional could hinge on this as well, considering the No. 17 RPI.

6- Gonzaga (30-21) at No. 21 Pepperdine (31-17)
Unbeknownst to almost everyone is the fact that the Zags now hold 2nd place in the WCC, a game and a half ahead of the Waves. Earlier this season, I saw the 'Dogs hand Oregon State its first loss of the season by a come-from-behind 6-5 count. And even USD coach Rich Hill told me, "these guys are good." So Pepperdine better have the P's and Q's together here, or it may find a permanent home in 3rd place.

7- LeMoyne (24-17) at Manhattan (31-13)
Two smokin' hot teams here. The Jaspers lead the 2nd place Dolphins by 2.5 games in the MAAC standings, so this series could be for the regular season title and top seed in the post-season tourney. But LC is on a 16-2 tear right now, led by versatile Ryan Woods (4-1, 1.51, 10svs) on the mound. Manhattan seems to be hitting its stride with Matt Rizzotti (.349-10-39) and Nick Derba (.292-10-28) doing a lot of damage. In other words, they're playing like this is the Lincoln Regional all over again.

8- Quinnipiac (21-14) at Mount St. Mary's (30-17)
As noted above, the Mount is playing as well as they've ever played in its Division I history. They come into this series with a two game lead on the Bobcats. But QC is 10-1 in recent NEC games, including last weekend's impressive 3-to-1 series win over Monmouth. Tim Binkowski leads the loup with a .408 average and heads a power-packed Bobcat lineup (NEC best 42HRs). So the Mount (4.84 team ERA) will have to pitch their best this weekend to keep that lead.

9- Louisiana Tech (33-19) at Fresno State (29-24)
Another 1-versus-2 conference battle, although the advantages all lay with the Bulldogs... er, that is, the FSU Bulldogs. They have a 2.5 game lead and are playing in Beiden Stadium, so you know that 3,000+ throng will help. But Tech has Brian Rike (.359-20HRs, one short of school record) and Brandon Hudson (.364) to lean on. Both were named finalists for the Wallace Award watch list this week. Neither team has been a pillar of consistency, so go with the ones who make the fewest mistakes.

10- Florida (25-24) at LSU (28-20-1)
Remember those old wrestling matches where the loser was forced to leave town? Feels like that's what we've got here as the Gators and Tigers have precarious RPIs and overall records that are hovering around the Mendoza Line. So this might be one of those matches where the loser is on the outside looking in on the SEC tournament and on the NCAA tournament. The two biggest questions are...
1) How much can Jared Bradford pitch?
Because the team's success seems to hinge on him (seven wins and three saves comprise 10 of LSU's 11 SEC wins).
And 2) When will Matt LaPorta return for UofF?
His bat, his leadership, his energy are what drives the Gators.


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Best mid-week win---
College of Charleston - 6
Coastal Carolina - 7
File this under the "you never know" label. CCU had one hit for the first eight innings of the game. Yes, one. Then in the 9th, they went on a binge. Pinch hitter Dock Doyle (who couldn't love that name?), led off the inning with a hot-shot single and ended the inning eight batters later with the game-winning RBI single. Between his two at-bats, there was a home run, a single, a walk, a hit-by-pitch, a walk, a hit-by-pitch, a single and a single. This game keeps the Chants in the spotlight and has to give them yet another giant shot of confidence (after sweeping a pair of games at Nebraska last weekend).


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Worst mid-week loss---
Kentucky - 4
Evansville - 5
I know we shouldn't put too much emphasis on a mid-week game, but every game is magnified that much more for the bubble teams at this time. And the Bat Cats really could've used this one. The No. 51 RPI won't cotton to too many committee members when you add in losses like this. Worst part? The Cats let a 4-1 lead slip out of their hands in the 8th and 9th innings.


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Worst mid-week lossES---
Mississippi State - 2 5
Austin Peay - 3 7
I've long held that State has been one of the bigger "Fraud" teams in the country this season, and this just threw gasoline on that theory. (I mean, really, can a team with an ERA of 5.09 REALLY be worthy of a home regional?). AP's Jake Lane blasted a pair of home runs in game one, including the jog-off clincher in the 11th inning, then MSU committed four costly errors to drop to 2-4 in true non-conference road games this year. The Governors, meanwhile, improved to 32-17 and have now won 10 straight games. They also lead the Ohio Valley at 15-6, with six games remaining.


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Isn't college baseball included in the Livability Factor?---
The Morgan Quitno Press released its yearly Most Livable States rankings recently, and the top of the list includes some of the states with the least college baseball influence in them. Here's the top five:
1- New Hampshire
2- Wyoming
3- Utah
4- Minnesota
5- New Jersey.
As you see, most of these are very light in the amount of Division I baseball programs. But you think that's bad? Look at the states at the Least Livable end, or the Bottom Five of the rankings:
46- South Carolina
47- Kentucky
48- Arkansas
49- Louisiana
50- Mississippi
Are you with me on this one?... I think there's some kind of conspiracy against college baseball by those Morgan Quitno cronies. Where is this company located?... oh, Lawrence, Kansas. Hmph. Sounds like a bunch of Big 12ers jealous of the SEC to me.

There are 44 facets involved in the development of the Most Livable list, including amount of crime, the poverty level, education, employment, general health and environmental factors, among others.


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- C'mon ESPNews, give college baseball some face time---
Was watching the tube on Tuesday night and saw that Kentucky's stud catcher Sean Coughlin was getting interviewed over the phone by the ESPNews anchor because he caught Roger Clemens during the Rocket's workout on the UK campus (... and why was he there again?). But while Coughlin was talking, the guys at ESPN decided to put a picture of Clemens up on the screen, not of Coughlin. Thanks a lot guys. Next time, put his name, his picture and while you're at it, throw up on the screen the fact that Coughlin is hitting .343-11-65 so far.


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A couple of notes I forgot about from this past weekend---
I had TiVo'd the Sunday Alabama-Florida game (Bama won 7-5 in 10inns) and a couple of things jumped out at me as I was watching the game this week.
- You can apparently purchase pieces of the Final Four floor from Atlanta at gatorzone.com. Hopefully they didn't wipe the sweat off first.
- 34 of Alabama's 50 home runs on the season have been solo shots.
- The announcers said that Florida's strength of schedule was rated No. 1 in the country and had a 26 RPI. After the weekend, UofF's S.O.S. was still rated No. 1 by Warren Nolan's ratings (No. 27 by Boyd Nation), but the RPI had dropped to 29 (No. 34 by Miller).
- Two of the late game home runs by Florida's Avery Barnes and Alabama's Tyler Odle were monster moon-shots, clearing the massive scoreboard in right field.


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This week's Beavis & Butthead moment---
This has got to be an intentional joke. That's all I'll preface this with. But go here and read the headline that has junior high students spewing pop out of their noses:

http://www.wsoctv.com/mlb/13222064/detail.html


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Celebrity sighting---
The last time I flew out of LAX to go on a baseball weekend, I saw actress/hottie Famke Janssen (X-Men, The Faculty, Goldeneye) waiting for a flight in the same terminal as me. Maybe the baseball gods will shine down on me again on this trip.

Famke.jpg
She's tall. She's wicked-cool. I'd do what she says.

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And I can't end this without mentioning the music of Minnesota---
In the spirit of my trek this weekend to the home of a very underrated music scene, here are The Best Five Bands From Minnesota:

1- Husker Du.
"Raw" is the one word to describe this highly-influential band that had a affect on the entire rock world. Raw energy. Raw sound. Raw emotion. Was the first hardcore act to sign with a major label in the 80s. Though it's one of their lighter moments, go ahead and download "Hardly Getting Over It" if at all possible.

HuskerDu.jpg
Norwegian for "Do you remember?"


2- The Replacements.
Paul Westerberg and Co. had a knack for melding angry drunk songs with outstanding lyrics. But later, the more melodic mainstream 'Mats emerged. And you have to love the anti-video stance the band took. "Die Within Your Reach" was perfect for the movie Say Anything.

3- Soul Asylum.
With soaring guitar firmly in hand, the aggressive rockers hit their stride in the early 90s by playing a President's Inauguration, winning a Grammy and helping re-unite runaways with their parents with the video to "Runaway Train." Then Dave Pirner dated Winona Ryder and everything went to hell.

4- Babes in Toyland.
The all-girl band became one of the pioneers of the riot grrrl movement. Leader Kat Bjelland also helped initiate the "kinderwhore" look that Courtney Love stole. (Of course, Courtney is the only one keeping that look alive today.)

5- The Trashmen.
This band was sort of punkish before the genre started. The early 60s sensations managed to specialize in "surf rock" despite being thousands of miles from any breakers. The hit "Surfin' Bird" went to No. 4 on the Billboard chart.

TheTrashmen.jpg
Serving the Minnesota surf scene


Keep in mind, this list is devoid of such Minnesota luminaries as the music icon that is Bob Dylan (never liked his singing a whole lot but is non-pareil as a writer), folk-rock faves The Jayhawks, Bob Mould's remarkably underrated band Sugar (how could I leave them off?), light college hit-sters Semisonic, the last one-hit wonder of the disco era Lipps Inc. ("Funkytown"), that pretentious waif named Prince (or symbol) and his ultimate tribute band The Time (who I like 'coz they had fun but didn't take themselves too seriously).

Minneapolis also spawned the influential pop/R&B production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and jazz-guitar prodigy Leo Kottke. Lots of good stuff coming out of the great white North.

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Okay you guys. Lemme up, I've had enough. This should be a watershed weekend for myself. The weather looks like it's going to cooperate and hopefully my flights, rental cars and hotels will oblige as well (That really requires some finger-crossing, I know).

Have a great college baseball weekend. I'll try to chime in on everything far and wide when I can this weekend, both here in "Extra Innings" and on the "Touching the Bases" site.

G'night.

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert