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Spring in their step

Sports | On Opening Day, every team is a contender

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

His name is Stephen Strasburg. His right arm is electric. And the hopes of baseball fans in the nation's capital are resting squarely on his 21-year-old shoulders.

For a team that has lost more than 100 games two seasons in a row, Strasburg represents change, a new start for a five-year-old expansion franchise that once showed promise. The Washington Nationals selected Strasburg with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, and the team has since committed a record $15.1 million to the unproven prodigy.

According to talent scouts and media analysts, the investment is sound and the hope of a city well placed-albeit perhaps premature. Strasburg's senior season numbers at San Diego State defy belief: a 13-1 record, a 1.32 ERA, 195 strikeouts in 109 innings.

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Nevertheless, the 6-foot-4 youngster is unlikely to crack the Nationals' 25-man roster for Opening Day. Baseball insiders predict he'll begin his rookie campaign in the minor leagues and not join the big league club until sometime this summer. No matter, the buzz in Washington is fully charged.

Such optimism abounds in baseball cities throughout the continent this time of year. Some is rooted in offseason improvements. Most simply stems from the inebriating warmth of spring and the preseason reality that all teams are tied for first place.

Besides Strasburg, here's a quick glance at a few of the brightest newcomers:

• Pitcher Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Cuban defector with 100-plus mph fastball

• Pitcher Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
10 Ks and 1.80 ERA in 10 big league innings last year

• Outfielder Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
.323 BA, 17 HR, and 63 RBI in the minors last season

• Pitcher Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles
38 Ks in 44.2 big-league innings last year

• Catcher Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
325 BA, 18 HR, and 80 RBI in the minors last season

Math madness

The NCAA men's basketball tournament isn't just for sports fans or gambling addicts. Number crunchers can join the fun, too. In a field of 64 teams, divided evenly into four 16-team brackets and seeded according to regular season success, the arithmetic and probability potentials are endless.

For example, the odds of any one person correctly predicting the winners of every game amount to 1 in 18.5 quintillion, when the play-in game is included. Of course, add in some weighting factors to those odds, such as the slim chance of a 16-seed ever knocking off a top seed, and the number dips to a mere 1 in 150,000,000. Good luck.

Last year, Joseph Taylor of New Jersey managed to best the millions of entries in ESPN's bracket pool, picking correctly in 59 of the 64 games. To get there, he had to predict numerous upsets, including Western Kentucky over Illinois, Wisconsin over Florida State, Dayton over West Virginia, and Cleveland State over Wake Forest. Impressive!

This year, similar upsets could prove even more commonplace as the talent gap between major and minor conferences continues to shrink. Still, riding top seeds deep into the tournament remains a good bet. In the current format's 24-year history, only 12 No. 1 seeds have ever failed to reach the Sweet 16. In fact, No. 3 seeds are more likely to lose their opening round matchup against a No. 14 seed than top seeds are to lose either of their first two games.

Go figure.


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