Hard to believe Harry, Part 2

It’s been more than two months since my last post and my how things have changed.

Back then, the Phillies were dead in the water. They were playing lifeless, sloppy and excruciating-to-watch baseball. They were making errors, not running out groundballs and pop ups and giving away games left and right. Seeing Charlie Manuel summon the likes of Chad Qualls in from the bullpen made fans at the game want to pull their hair out and those at home to want to throw their remotes through the television.

The Phillies were so far out of playoff contention that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded outfielders Shane Victorino, a key member of the five straight division titles, and Hunter Pence, which the Phillies traded the farm for last year to extend that postseason run, at the trade deadline.

Fast forward six weeks from the end of the July and all of a sudden the Phillies find themselves three games back of the second wild card spot with 19 games to play.

How have they done it? It’s simple – pitching.

Cliff Lee has turned into Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels has shown why the Phillies gave him a $144 million extension and Roy Halladay, while not his dominant self, has been pretty good since returning from a disabled list stint for a strained muscle in his right shoulder. Throw in a very good Kyle Kendrick and two good outings in his first three starts by Tyler Cloyd and the Phillies have been able to win games without having to wear out the scoreboard.

But as good as the starting pitching has been, the bullpen has been even better.

Gone is Qualls, and it was a month over due, and it looks like Charlie Manuel has given the eighth inning to rookie flame-thrower Phillippe Aumont. The key player in the trade that sent Lee to Seattle after the 2009 season, Aumont was a bust in his first year in the Phillies system. He started then, walked far too many hitters and had runners on base constantly. He switched back to relieving, which he did with the Mariners farm teams, last year and the results have been good. While sometimes still a bit wild, Aumont has something you can teach – a sinking fastball that runs up to 98 mph. He also has a knee-buckling curve that when it’s on just isn’t fair to hitters. Will he continue to pitch like he has the past month (1.08 ERA in 8 1-3 innings with nine strikeouts)? Probably not, but maybe he does. Jeremy Horst (1.19 ERA in 22 2-3 innings with 25 Ks) and Jonathan Papelbon (34 saves in 38 chances) have been outstanding as well. Even Antonio Bastardo has been good lately, giving up just 1 run while fanning 20 in his last 11 appearances.

And the amazing thing about this run is that the two guys the Phillies thought they needed back to make a run – Ryan Howard and Chase Utley – have been pretty much invisible. Howard is striking out a ton, even for him, and Utley just isn’t close to the same player he used to be because of achy knees, but John Mayberry Jr. has been playing better lately and Eric Kratz has been fantastic with Carlos Ruiz out of action for about a month. With Ruiz, the team’s best player all season, now back the Phillies have to feel even better about their chances.

And if that doesn’t help, how about their schedule?

They open a four-game set Thursday with the dreadful Astros. Next, they’ll play three with the Mets, who have been in a free fall since July but also are 10-5 against the Phillies this year. A six-game homestand starts with the Braves on Sept. 21 and then three against the Nationals before a season-ending three-game trip to Florida.

This is very doable people. Of those 19 games, I say 13 wins could get the job done, and I see the Phillies winning more than 13 games mind you. I’ve also been a Phillies fan since I was six years old so I know enough not to get too far ahead of myself.

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Hard to believe, Harry

If you’ve been a Phillies fan longer than the team’s recent five-year postseason run, you’ll understand the title of this post. If not, those were often the words of Hall of Fame player and fantastic color analyst Richie Ashburn to his good friend and fellow announcer Harry Kalas time and time again as the two worked Phillies games until Ashburn’s death in 1997.

I can only imagine what Whitey (that’s Ashburn for you new Phillies fans) must be thinking with the All-Star break here.

The Phillies, a team with a payroll of $175 million, were swept at home by Atlanta this weekend to end a first half that had only one real positive, the breakout performance by Carlos Ruiz. Not even a career year (done in half a season) by Chooch could save a sinking ship that was taking on water before the first pitch was even thrown.

I was at Saturday’s listless 6-3 loss (I’ve never heard Citizen’s Bank Park so quiet) with my girlfriend, and on the drive home she asked me how a team that had been so good could be so bad so quickly. It took the whole 90-mile ride home to explain it to her and I didn’t even get to everything. Lots of people like to point the finger at a player or a manager, but a team doesn’t go from losing 60 games in a whole season in 2011 to losing 50 games in the first half during this dreadful year with just a few problems. And that’s worrisome going forward.

Forget a sixth straight division title. That’s over. Making the wild card? No way, not with the lack of effort and heart (Shane Victorino, who is making $9.5 million this year, was scratched from the lineup Sunday after a meeting with Charlie Manuel about his recent, and really season-long, slump – 8-for-40 over the last 10 games and a woeful .240 average and punchless .680 OPS this season) on this team. The Flyin’ Hawaiian, who should absolutely be traded and for peanuts if necessary, isn’t the only culprit on this team, though. Far from it.

John Mayberry, Jr. had a fantastic year last season in a part-time role, hitting .273 with 15 homers and an OPS of .854. This year, with a chance to win himself an every-day job in the big leagues and earn tons of money in the future, Mayberry has been awful with a .232 average, .646 OPS and 61 strikeouts in 207 at bats.

Antonio Bastardo was lights out for the first five months last year, but since then he’s been no better than a mop-up reliever. After posting a WHIP of 0.93 last year, Bastardo has allowed 43 base runners in 28 2-3 innings this season. He came into a 0-0 game Friday against Atlanta and faced seven batters, walking three, allowing a single and giving up a grand slam that brought on the fiercest boos of the season from the crowd according to several reporters at the game.

After signing a three-year, $30 million contract to return to Philadelphia, Jimmy Rollins was a player who had to play well early while Ryan Howard and Chase Utley (I’ll get to him in a minute) were babied back to health. Instead, Rollins was awful the first two months of the season. Sure, he played well in June, but this is a guy who has been in the majors since 2001. Taking the first two months off, when you’re team is in desperate straits because of injuries, is unacceptable from J-Roll (I loathe that nickname by the way).

It’s not just on those three guys, though. They’re part of the problem, but really outside of Ruiz, Cole Hamels at times, Jonathan Papelbon more often than not and Hunter Pence (who has had a pretty good first half offensively, but is just an awful, awful defender), this whole team has been a huge disappointment. And it started before spring training even got going.

While the rest of the Phillies were on the practice fields in Clearwater, Fla., Utley was nowhere to be found. He had missed the beginning of last season with a bad knee, but going into the offseason there were reassurances given by both Utley and the Phillies that there would be steps taken to make sure that Utley would be ready for 2012. But as the days crept by with Utley missing in action, it became apparent that the knee problem had resurfaced. This time it was worse. Now both of Utley’s knees were bothering him and there was no time table for him to even begin working out let alone start playing. It took until May before he could even take ground balls. He was so-so during his rehab games, finishing up with a 3-for-5 game with the IronPigs, before homering in his first at bat of the season against the Pirates on June 27. Watch that homer again, though, and you’ll see the prettiest hanging breaking ball you could ever imagine. I wrote about Utley’s return in my last blog post and still feel the same way. That was reinforced when I saw him hit a pop up to left field on a 90 mph fastball Saturday. The old Utley drives that ball in the right-center field gap or maybe to the seats. I know, he didn’t have a spring training and was given just 37 at-bats on his rehab assignment, but the guy has no legs. Enjoy him this season and next because that’s when his Phillies career is over.

It doesn’t help that the Phillies’ two highest paid pitchers are hurt (Roy Halladay) and an underachiever who seems bored (Cliff Lee), their highest paid set-up reliever (Jose Contreras) blew out his elbow and their biggest free agent pickup for the bullpen (Chad Qualls) outside of Papelbon was awful in every aspect of the word awful. Throw in losing young reliever Michael Stutes to a shoulder injury, having Joe Blanton be good for a start and horrible for three and getting the worst season of his career across the board from someone like Victorino in the final year of his contract and it adds up to a 37-50 first-half.

How is it fixed? Addition by subtraction is a start.

Victorino should be traded ASAP. A team that needs a decent center fielder with an OK arm, a guy who has a history of getting on base and can steal some bags might give up a mid-level prospect or two. I highly doubt any team would trade anything but a little bit of money for either Placido Polanco, who has been below average this season, or Blanton, and I’m not sure who would replace either if they were shipped out, while also forcing the Phillies to eat some of their salaries, but it could send a wake-up call to the team. Or it could cause the players to tell the media that it sent a wake-up call only to go out and sleep walk through a series like they did against Atlanta this weekend.

The biggest question surrounds Hamels, who is due to be a free agent after this season and could get a six- or seven-year offer for upwards of $150-175 million. Could the Phillies afford that? Probably, but that would be four guys (Halladay, Howard, Hamels and Lee) all making more than $20 million a season with the need to also work on extensions for Pence and Ruiz and fill in holes in the bullpen and on the bench. The Phillies should try to get Hamels to sign an extension over the next two weeks and if he won’t explore the possibility of trading him. If they can’t get two blue-chip prospects and one or two mid-level guys, hold on to him, let him walk as a free agent and get three draft picks.

And we’re at 1,303 words for this post and I’m not even halfway done. It’s been that kind of season, well half a season really.

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Will Utley’s return help?

It appears that Chase Utley will return to the Phillies for Wednesday’s game against the Pirates after missing the first 76 games of the season with creaky knees.

His presence will certainly help in the clubhouse as well on the field (where the Phillies can finally stop playing Michael Martinez, who is capable defensively but offers less than zero at the plate). While not the most vocal player, Utley commands respect in the clubhouse because of his past success, even if that seems like light years ago, and for the way he plays the game. He also does something no other hitter in the Phillies’ lineup seems capable of and that’s work a pitcher. During his prime (I thought he’d be entering his prime now, but that’s another discussion for another day), Utley had the ability to make pitcher’s throw something they didn’t want to and when they did he made them pay.

That wasn’t the case last year though, when Utley appeared to struggle using his legs at the plate. And that’s where I wonder what kind of production he’ll provide this year since he posted career lows in games played (103), batting average (.259), home runs (11), on-base percentage (.344), slugging percentage (.425) and OPS (.769) last year with just one bad knee. Now he has two bad knees and is coming off a rehab stint in Clearwater where he was 5-for-32 with one home run, five RBIs and five strikeouts. And worst of all? It’s playing in the field that affects his knees the most, which means Martinez will likely play when Utley is given the day off since Mike Fontenot has been just awful defensively and Freddy Galvis is hurt/suspended.

So what exactly will Utley bring to the table? How can anyone be hopeful after all the above information? I sure can’t. You want to hope that the old Utley, who ran out every ground ball like it was Game 7 of the World Series, clobbered home runs a big man would be jealous of and threw his body around on defense with reckless abandon, will return and lead the Phillies out of the NL East cellar. You also want to be realistic and accept that this is a man whose playing career may be over after his contract runs out next season (which means we’ll most likely have to go through this again of him not being ready to play at the start of the 2013 season). He could DH in the American League, you might say, but the DH isn’t for everyone. Just ask Pat Burrell.

The reality of the situation is that Utley, and his bad knees, will be a superior upgrade to what is in place now and Ryan Howard will provide the same when he returns, whenever that may be, but neither pitch out of the bullpen, which has been putrid this season, and both are shells of their former selves. The hole the Phillies have dug themselves, nine games out of first place and six games under .500 going into Monday’s game against Pittsburgh, may be too deep to climb out of. Even the old Utley would have been hard pressed to save this season.

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East’s Heaton steps down

This will be in Monday’s paper, but I figured I’d post it here as well.

By JOE MIEGOC
Record Sports Writer
While there were other factors, the financial troubles plaguing the Pocono Mountain School District forced Patrick Heaton’s hand.

Heaton, who just finished his fifth season as Pocono Mountain East’s boys basketball coach, informed PM East principal Todd Burns and athletic director Robert Bailey on Friday that he was resigning as the school’s basketball coach.

Heaton, who came to Pocono East from Mountain View in 2007, guided the Cardinals to the District 11 Class AAAA championship game and PIAA playoffs in 2009, and a Mountain Valley Conference title in 2010. Heaton finished his five-year stay with the Cardinals with a record of 87-42 and led them to the district playoffs every year and to the MVC playoffs every year since they started in the 2008-09 season.

Basketball didn’t have much to do with Heaton’s decision though.

When the PMSD released the latest version of its budget last week it included a proposal to cut nearly 300 employees for the 2012-13 school year. The school board approved the cuts, contingent on the closings of three district school buildings in May.

Couple the job uncertainly with the illness of his wife Tara, who has been hospitalized several times while battling a digestive disorder caused by a defect in her pancreas, and Heaton didn’t have much choice.

“It’s partly the impending job cuts, and as it looks like right now my position will probably be cut based on lack of seniority, and also the welfare of my family,” said Heaton, who teaches mathematics at East. “We won’t know the final cuts until later in the year, but my wife has been ill and I can’t go without insurance so I need to make sure I secure employment for next year.

“It’s unfair to the kids (in the basketball program) to think that I have the commitment to do both things at the same time.”

While frustrated with the situation, Heaton said he understood what the school district was facing.

“It’s frustrating, but I understand the economics of the situation,” said Heaton, who has two sons in the PMSD. “You have less money than you need to spend. I don’t know if anybody has any choice in the matter at this point.”

Heaton said he wasn’t sure what his future held, but his resume will be bolstered by his time at East.

The Cardinals had three 20-win seasons during Heaton’s tenure and played in the MVC title game three times, beating Pocono Mountain West in 2010. PM East also advanced to the district title game in 2009 for just the third time in school history.

“I’m proud of all the efforts of the kids,” Heaton said. “The parents, the administration, Bob Bailey, my AD, everyone has been so supportive.”

That support carried over to off the court where Heaton has focused much of his time caring for his wife and family.

“I got a lot of support from the community and the administration and everyone really,” Heaton said. “I’m very thankful for that.”

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The prospects of the Flyers, Sixers

One team is underachieving, while the other is overachieving, but even as the Sixers entered the All-Star break losers of five straight and the Flyers continue to play uninspired hockey both teams are in line to be part of the postseason.

That’s not really a shock.

The Sixers, who made the playoffs last season, lead the Atlantic Division thanks mostly to the fact that the Knicks, despite Jeremy Lin being the newest darling of New York, are an average team and the Celitcs are an aging one. Suffocating defense that has allowed a league-low 87.5 points per game is another big reason why the Sixers lead the division, but the losing streak is mainly about lack of offense. Philly is scoring just 94 ppg, good for 18th in the league, and without a go-to scorer on the roster that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.

The Flyers had a huge turnover in the offseason, shipping Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to new teams, while finally getting a “big-time” goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov. The trades helped Claude Giroux takeover as the face of the franchise, but Bryzgalov has been underwhelming at best. Of course, playing without captain Chris Pronger, ruled out for the season and playoffs with concussion-like symptoms, on the back line hasn’t helped Bryzgalov. The Flyers average an NHL best 3.3 goals per game, but without Pronger are giving up 3 gpg, which is 27th best (or worst) in the league.

So what are the prospects of each team going forward?

The Sixers are not contenders. Anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish. They might be able to win a game in a seven-game series with the Miami Heat, maybe two against the Orlando Magic, but the Sixers cannot win four of seven against those teams. Why? It’s easy really. When it comes down to crunch time the Heat have LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, and the Magic have Dwight Howard. Who do the Sixers have? And don’t say Lou Williams, please don’t say Lou Williams. Until the Sixers get a guy who is capable of scoring 22-25 ppg on any given night, don’t expect them to challenge in the East let alone for a title.

The Flyers are a different story, though. Yes, Bryzgalov is spacey and frustrates the hell out of Philly fans every time he opens his mouth, but there’s denying the guy’s talent when hockey is the only thing on his mind. Some of the goals he gives up are super soft, like the last two against Pittsburgh last weekend before getting benched, but Bryzgalov has been around for a long time and has established himself as one of the better goalies around. That, of course, is given that he’s not pondering the wonders of the galaxy or talking about white tigers (if you didn’t watch HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, you probably have no clue what I’m talking about). The Flyers did try to beef up the defense by adding Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina in the past week, but the Flyers’ fate rests on the shoulders of Bryzgalov finding his game and the offense continuing to flourish.

All that said, don’t expect any parades in Philadelphia to be generated by either team, but just think, the Phillies are working out in Clearwater, Fla., now. I’ll save that blog for another day, though.

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What now for the Eagles

With one game left in an exceptionally disappointing season, the Eagles have little left to play for but pride. The funny thing is if they had any pride during the middle of the season Sunday’s home game against the Redskins game might actually mean something.

Still, I’ll give them credit (just a little) that they’ve seemed to figure a few things out defensively (I’m thinking Juan Castillo has probably gotten some input from his position coaches and actually put it to use) while making sure LeSean McCoy gets enough touches to be a difference maker. That said, even if they get to 8-8 with a victory Sunday it is far, far below what this team should have been.

So where does the blame lie?

Many will point to Castillo since it was his defense that continually coughed up leads through the first 12 games of the season. And while he shouldn’t have been the Eagles defensive coordinator (a given after not coaching defense since the late 1989 at a Texas high school), it’s not really Castillo’s fault that he was in far over his head.

But hang on, this isn’t another rant as to why Andy Reid should be fired. That would be a waste of time because even if the Eagles lose Sunday the team has saved Reid’s job for another season by winning three straight in dominating fashion. The true onus of the failures of this season falls directly on the players.

When is Michael Vick going to learn to slide instead of falling back, “sliding isn’t part of my game. That’s the way I play.” Pal, you’re barley 200 pounds playing in a league where 250-pound linebackers run almost as fast as you. Learning to slide or run out of bounds is the least you can do to ensure your teammates that you’ll actually play 16 games instead of collecting 16-game checks to play 12 times.

Hey, DeSean Jackson, stop crying about your contract. You don’t like it? Then don’t play. Simple as that. You want to get paid? Stop alligator-arming passes across the middle. Of all places, Philadelphia is not a place that will tolerate prima donnas. Now Eagles fans are starting to realize why Jackson slipped to the Eagles in the second round of the 2008 draft when he clearly had first-round talent.

Paging Nnamdi Asomugha, the guy who was a multiple first-team All-Pro player with the Oakland Raiders. You know, when teams didn’t dare throw the ball in his direction because of how good he supposedly was. Where is that guy? This season, I saw a guy getting beat by the likes of Victor Cruz and Brandon Marshall, good but not in the same league as Asomugha. Or so we thought.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the entire team.

Brent Celek has had a Pro Bowl season and for him to not even be an alternate is a disgrace. Jason Babin has been the player the Eagles hoped for and then some with an 18-sack season. Alex Henery has bounced back nicely from two misses on short field goals that ultimately cost the Eagles a game against San Francisco to have a very good rookie season. And Jason Peters, despite your weekly false starts you are clearly one of the best lineman in all of football.

This isn’t a team that needs to be blown up. Not in the least. I might be in the minority, but seeing Jackson walk wouldn’t bother me one bit. I’d rather see someone out there trying hard all the time, not just after they get paid or when they feel like it. There are holes to fill (all three linebacker positions, especially MLB, one or maybe two starting safeties unless Nate Allen can rebound from a 2010 knee injury and a competent backup quarterback if Vick isn’t going to stop being stubborn about sliding and/or running out of bounds), but this is a team that is built to win for the next two or three seasons.

With a full offseason to continue working (at the top of the list has to be getting through to Vick how truly important he is to the team) and some tinkering here and there (I’m fine with Castillo returning as long as he’s open to playing to the strengths of his players and not just how he wants to play) this is a team with Super Bowl talent. Now I’m starting to sound like a member of the Eagles front office.

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All-MVC football

To nobody’s surprise, Stroudsburg quarterback Robert Bennie was chosen as the Mountain Valley Conference MVP in a unanimous vote by the conference coaches.

Really, there is only one problem I have with the All-MVC team and it’s a big one. How East Stroudsburg North wide receiver Abdul Murphy didn’t make the first team is an ultimate mystery to me and a complete diservice to the kid. Yes, Eastburg North runs the Veer offense and throws the ball rarely, but Murphy was the second best receiver in the conference behind East Stroudsburg South’s Marquis Harp. Think about this – ES North completed 23 passes and Murphy caught 20 of them. He finished the season with 441 yards and seven touchdowns and was often the only receiver out in the pattern for North. You can bet Murphy will be on the All-Area first team that we’ll have out in the near future.

In years past I’ve had several problems with choices for the All-MVC football team so to only have one is a step forward, but the MVC coaches really messed up on the one.

Here’s the team:

All-Mountain Valley Conference football
First team
Offense
Tight end — Ron Savoia, Sr., Stroudsburg.
Wide receivers — Marquis Harp, Sr., ES South, Jacen Nalesnik, Jr., Lehighton, Dwayne Vines, Sr., PM West.
Tackles — Blaine Woodson, Jr., Stroudsburg, Sebastian Joseph, Jr., Stroudsburg.
Guards — Jon Passmore, Sr., Stroudsburg, Jacob Fritz, Sr., PM East.
Center — Steven Randazzo, Jr., PM East.
Quarterback — Robert Bennie, Sr., Stroudsburg, unanimous selection.
Running backs — Robert Getz, Sr., Pleasant Valley, Andrew Brome, Sr., Stroudsburg, Travon Pugh, Sr., PM West.
Fullback — Joe Clouse, Sr., ES North, unanimous selection.
Placekicker — Jordon Ellison, Jr., Stroudsburg.
Defense
Ends — Sebastian Joseph, Jr., Stroudsburg, Stan Acosta, Jr., ES South.
Interior linemen — Michael Balliet, Sr., Lehighton, Liam Hughes, Sr., Stroudsburg.
Linebackers — Dakota Everett, Jr., Pleasant Valley, Phil Stokes, Jr., Stroudsburg, Cade Milegar, Sr., Pocono Mt. East.
Defensive backs — Marquis Harp, Sr., ES South, Robert Bennie, Sr., Stroudsburg, Robert Getz, Sr., Pleasant Valley, Travon Pugh, Sr., PM West.
Punter — Joe Clouse, Sr., ES North, unanimous selection.
MVP — Robert Bennie, Sr., quarterback, defensive back, Stroudsburg.
Second team
Offense
Tight end — Dakota Everett, Jr., Pleasant Valley.
Receivers — Ryan Sickler, Sr., PM East, Ben Kloepping, Sr., Stroudsburg.
Offensive tackles — Glen Kleiber, Sr., PM West, Tom Rose, Jr., ES South.
Guards — Judson Kibagendi, Jr., ES North; Nick Roughan, Sr., ES North.
Center — Kyle Gill, Sr., ES South.
Quarterback — Jeff Krisiak, Jr., PM West.
Running backs — Devyn Papa, So., PM East; Caseem Johnson, Jr., ES North; Tariq Butler, Sr., ES South.’
Fullback — Cade Milegar, Sr., PM East.
Placekicker — Grant Belanger, Sr., PM East.
Defense
Defensive ends — Blaine Woodson, Jr., Stroudsburg; Joe Clouse, Sr., ES North.
Defensive linemen — Steven Randazzo, Jr., PM East; Frankie Gonzalez, Sr., Stroudsburg.
Linebackers — Daryle Koger, So., ES North; Terryl Littles, Sr., ES South; Rob Karstendiek, Jr., Stroudsburg.
Defensive backs — Kyle Harris, Jr., PM East; Dean Bumbulsky, Sr., Pleasant Valley; Anthony Farole, Sr., Lehighton; Darius Gonzalez, Sr., Stroudsburg; Abdul Murphy, Jr., ES North.
Punter — Grant Belanger, Sr., PM East.
Honorable mention
Offense
Tight end — Grant Belanger, Sr., PM East.
Tackle — Ryan Mayo, Jr., ES North.
Guards — Ricky Calvert, Sr., ES South; Eric Whiteman, Sr., Lehighton.
Quarterback — Josh Agosto, Sr., Lehighton.
Receivers — Sekou Jones, Jr., Pleasant Valley; Andrew Romeo, Jr., Pleasant Valley.
Defense
Defensive ends — Alex Storm, Sr., Lehighton; Dominick Ammirato, Jr., Pleasant Valley.
Defensive linemen — Jon Speaks, Sr., PM West; Devon Mirabal, Sr., ES North.
Linebackers — Jacen Nalesnik, Jr., Lehighton; Joe Vacca, Jr., PM West; Joe Oriel, Sr., Lehighton.
Defensive back — Jake DeJohn, Sr.,  PM East.
Punter — Jacen Nalesnik, Jr., Lehighton.

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How to fix the Eagles

I debated whether or not I was qualified to write this, but if an offensive line coach who hadn’t coached any defensive football since 1989 at a Texas high school can become a defensive coordinator at the highest level of football more than 20 years later than it’s probably OK for me to give my two cents on how to right the Eagles’ ship.

First, forget the dream team. That was a sound bite out of a player’s mouth who had been an Eagle for about three minutes. If Vince Young has to play this season the Eagles’ season is over. Period. The guy has all the talent in the world, but the heart of a tin man. I find it humorous how many different ways Eagles haters can spin the dream team label. That they care enough to think of things like, ‘Dream Team … more like a nightmare, hehehe,’ makes me laugh and not with them. The Eagles are a team full of talented players with zero chemistry. Having no mini camps or OTAs is partly to blame, but so is a front office and coaching staff who thought they could pull this off with no hitches. I guess it’s better that reality set in early before the season really goes in the toilet.

OK, how to fix the Eagles.

The wide 9 defensive line front has to be scrapped, at least on early downs. To have a successful wide 9 technique, where the defensive ends lineup well outside the tackles’ outside shoulder, a team needs to have good linebackers and the Eagles simply don’t have that. Jim Washburn was able to use the wide 9 in Tennessee because he had guys like Keith Bullock and not Moise Fokou playing linebacker. I’m fine with playing the wide 9 on third-and-long when everyone in the stadium (even Juqua Parker) knows the other team is going to pass, but not on first down when opponents are salivating to attack the Eagles’ substandard second level.

Next up is get the ball out of Michael Vick’s hands quicker. For God sake, the man is going to be in 10 pieces by Week 10 if he keeps taking all those hits. The offensive line, especially up the middle where there are two rookies (center Jason Kelce and guard Danny Watkins) and a journeyman (Evan Mathis) playing, have no cohesion and the right tackle (Todd Herremans) is not a blindside tackle. Asking Vick to take five- or seven-step drops or to a throw double screen pass like the one called on his first interception in Buffalo last week just aren’t realistic. I know having Vick have the ball longer means he’s capable of ripping off some mesmerizing run, but it also means he’s likely setting himself up to take another big hit.

The best, and probably easiest, way to help out O-line coach turned defensive coordinator extraordinaire Juan Castillo is to turn rookie safety Jaiquawn Jarrett loose. The former Temple standout couldn’t be worse than Jarrad Page or Kurt Coleman. He may be a little lost mentally, but so what. The kid has the reputation of being a big hitter and that’s something the Eagles’ defense, especially the secondary, has sorely lacked all season. There are some rumors floating around cyberspace that the Eagles are interested in trading for former star Brian Dawkins, but come on. Dawk will go down as one of the best Eagles, and best safeties the game has ever seen, but he was well past his prime when he left after the 2008 season. Bringing him back now won’t help the team on the field much.

None of these are terribly hard concepts to grasp. No risky strategies or strategic changes. Three simple moves really that are practical and should make for some improvements. Firing Andy Reid or Castillo isn’t going to turn things around. Doing that means the team has given up and that’s not a trend you want players on one of the youngest teams in the league learning. When adversity rises a team must come together and fight through it, not tuck tail and run. We’ll see which team the Eagles are Sunday against the Redskins.

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Pocono Raceway review

Got an e-mail from Paul Swaney shortly after Pocono Raceway hosted NASCAR’s big boys earlier this month.

Paul is the president and co-founder of www.stadiumjourney.com, a site that reviews sports venues from across the country. He gave his thoughts on everything Pocono from fans to access. It’s a pretty interesting read and there are some good photos and video as well.

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PV’s Sharpe off to Wilkes

Pleasant Valley standout Michael Sharpe will continue his basketball career at Wilkes University.

Sharpe, who was an All-Mountain Valley Conference and Pocono Record All-Area first-team pick last winter, was a two-year starter for the Bears. The 6-foot-5 Sharpe averaged 13.3 points per game last winter, helping PV qualify for the District 11 Class AAAA playoffs for the first time in four years.

Here is a release from Wilkes:

WILKES-BARRE — Wilkes University head coach Jerry Rickrode has announced that Michael Sharpe has joined the men’s basketball recruiting class for the upcoming 2011-12 season.

Sharpe, a 6-5 forward who played at Pleasant Valley High School averaged 13 points and five rebounds per game as a senior this past season. He brought home multiple honors during his senior year, being named first team by the Mountain Valley Conference, Pocono Record and (Lehighton) Times News.

“Michael has a great upside and played extremely well down the stretch of his high school career,” Rickrode said. “He has the ability to score in the post as well as being able to step out and stretch the defense.”

The Colonels, who have made it to the conference postseason 16 times in the last 19 seasons, tip-off 2011-12 on Nov. 15 when they host Penn State Hazleton in the Marts Center.

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