This week in sports feels like most are anxiously waiting what comes next.
While most area high school athletes are finished with winter sports and anticipating the start of spring play, national sports seem to be waiting for a big event just on the horizon as well.
The most meaningful wait this time of year, at least for me, is no doubt the wait for meaningful baseball games to start being played again.
We’re at about the halfway point in spring training now with players either closing in on game readiness or still competing for a spot on the 26-man roster to open the season.
You read that number correctly. Instead of 25 players on the big league roster this year, Major League Baseball has expanded the limit to 26 players.
In keeping with commissioner Rob Manfred’s war on the bullpen, teams can only use the extra roster slot for an extra position player. Rosters cannot exceed 13 pitchers until September.
Manfred’s rule changes have also limited the use of the bullpen this year by requiring that a relief pitcher throw to at least three batters, or reach the end of an inning, before they can be substituted for.
This effectively ends the practice of switching back and forth between a right-handed and a left-handed reliever in the later innings to ensure a favorable match-up for the defense against each batter the opposing teams sends to the plate.
Now, a team that organizes its lineup by alternating between right-handed and left-handed batters would be assured of at least one statistically favorable match-up against any new reliever at the start of an inning.
This also gives the batting team the clear advantage of being able to pinch hit for a more favorable match-up without fear of the pitching team making a corresponding move to the bullpen to negate it, so long as the current pitcher has faced fewer than three batters already.
Time will tell how many loopholes can be found to skirt the new three-batter minimum, such as feigning injuries before facing the requisite number of batters in order to allow another reliever to be called into the game.
For the NFL, not only is next month’s annual draft a reason for anticipation, but the league’s top headlines daily circle around the free agency of six-time Lombardi Thophy winning quarterback Tom Brady.
A media darling for 20-plus years now, Brady is contemplating handing in his New England Patriots uniform in exchange for a new set of colors this offseason.
Teams besides the Patriots thought to be in the hunt include the Las Vegas Raiders and the Tennessee Titans.
The Raiders are relocating from Oakland and set to open their first season in their new venue this fall. Brady could be an addition that would ensure the sets are filled in Vegas for that first year.
Tenneseee is coached by Brady’s former Patriots’ teammate Mike Vrabel. The Titans made what was though to be an improbable run to the AFC Championship game this season before falling to the Kansas City Chiefs.
While the Titans were led for all but the earliest portion of the season by Ryan Tannehill, who was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, it remains unclear if the team will resign Tannehill for another season and hope lightning can strike twice.
It also remains unclear if Brady leaving New England is even really on the table, if the veteran quarterback just wants to know for his own ego how much teams would pay for his services on the open market, or if maybe the whole thing is just one big scheme dreamed up by Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick to play puppet master to other teams in the league.
In men’s and women’s college basketball, we’re just a week away from the national tournament, also known as March Madness.
This week is what’s known as championship week, where teams vie for their conference titles in a postseason tournament.
For teams that have not been ranked at or near the top 25 in the national polls all season, this could be the final opportunity to get into the national postseason tournament.
A few conferences, such as the Mountain West, Ohio Valley, Big South, Missouri Valley and Atlantic Sun, crowned their league champions in men’s basketball before the week got under way. However, another 26 automatic entries into the field of 68 teams for the national tournament remained up for grabs at the start of the week.
The larger conferences usually wrap up on Sunday, hours or even minutes before the brackets are revealed on a national broadcast known as Selection Sunday.
For years through grade school and high school, I would anxiously wait with pen and paper in front of the television on Selection Sunday to scribble down the entries as they were revealed and often have my winners selected almost as quickly as the brackets could be revealed.
My enthusiasm for having my own personal prognosticative bracket formulated as soon as possible is not what it once was, and my predictive capability when it comes to the tournament has waned over the years, but I still deeply enjoy getting that first look at the bracket and imagining the possibilities.
For Missouri, the No. 10 men’s seed in the Southeastern Conference, championship week is the only means left for the Tigers to gain entry into the 68-team field.
The tournament takes place March 11-15 in Nashville.
Just to reach the SEC championship game, the Tigers would have to go through No. 7 Texas A&M and then No. 2 Auburn (ranked 15th in the Coaches Poll and No. 17 in the AP) for certain and then likely No. 3 LSU in the semifinals.
That’s a tall task, but not an insurmountable one. Mizzou lost by two points, 66-64, to the Texas A&M Aggies at Mizzou Arena Jan. 21, but then lost by 17, 68-51, in a rematch at College Station Feb. 4.
In one lone meeting with Auburn, Mizzou won in Columbia, Feb. 15, 85-73. Auburn was ranked No. 11 at the time.
LSU topped Mizzou by a four-point spread, 82-78, in Baton Rouge Feb. 11. LSU was the No. 25 team in the nation at that time.
Depending on what happens in the other half of the bracket, if Mizzou would manage to make an improbable Cinderella run to the finals, a meeting with the No. 1 seed, Kentucky, would be the likely result.
A perennial hoops powerhouse, Kentucky is currently ranked No. 6 nationally in both polls and already a sure thing to receive an at-large bid into the national tournament if the Wildcats do not win the conference.
Many times in these cases, a scenario like that could favor the underdogs, who would be playing for their last shot to get into the tournament against a team that may just be trying not to get rusty before the big dance. For a team like Kentucky that tends to consider anything short of a Final Four appearance a failed season, a conference title may not hold as much significance.
For another men’s team in the state, the Saint Louis Billikens, the championship week climb may not appear as steep, but anything short of a league championship may not give the team entry into the 68-team field either.
The Billikens have the No. 4 seed in the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn March 11-15.
Saint Louis has a bye into the quarterfinals where it will meet the final team standing between the No. 5 seed, St. Bonaventure, No. 12. George Mason and No. 13 Saint Joseph’s.
A quarterfinal win would likely set the Billikens up to face top-seeded Dayton in the semifinals. Dayton is in the midst of one of its best regular seasons. The Flyers are 29-2 with a perfect 18-0 conference record and end the regular season ranked No. 3 in both national polls.
Dayton’s only losses have been to the consensus No. 1 team in the nation, Kansas, and Colorado.
Regardless of who makes it in and who doesn’t, few events can keep pace with the frantic win or go home setting of each round of the postseason tournament.