The countdown has begun. Like seconds ticking away on a shot clock, the end of 2012 is almost here.

In the sports world, that means another year of wins and losses in the books. Another year of athletes who have inspired us and athletes who have disappointed us. Another year of captivating storylines (Triple Crown, Olympics) and storylines that we wish would just go away (PEDs, lockouts).

For some athletes, 2012 has been a championship year. For others in sports, this year can’t conclude soon enough.

Here’s a look at some of the past year’s sports highs and lows.

Highs

Lionel Messi

Messi has been outstanding, even by international superstar standards. The three-time FIFA player of the year set a new record for club and country goals in a calendar year, totaling 91. Messi’s effort shattered the previous mark of 85, which had stood for four decades. Expect him to pick up a fourth Ballon d’Or.

He was also the leading scorer in the UEFA Champions League tournament for the fourth consecutive year, although Barcelona fell just short of claiming another crown after being bounced by eventual champions Chelsea in the semifinal.

Behind Messi’s remarkable performance, Barcelona enters 2013 stronger than ever with a 16-0-1 record in La Liga and considered a virtual lock for the league title.  

Messi recently signed an extension that will keep him with Barcelona through 2018, reportedly turning down an offer with an undisclosed team that would have brought him $40 million a year.

And if the on-the-field success of the last 12 months wasn’t enough, Messi also welcomed his first child, a son, into the world in November.

Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera accomplished what many baseball fans and experts had begun to consider impossible when he won baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 years. The Detroit Tigers’ slugger hit .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBIs to lead the American League in each category and capture his sport's elusive honor.

The milestone marked not only a historic moment for baseball, but a pinnacle of Cabrera’s career --- one that had been defined by unquestionable talent, but sometimes questionable decision making.

But even with the Triple Crown in hand, Cabrera wasn’t done. He led his team to a World Series berth. While the Tigers lost the Fall Classic to the San Francisco Giants, Cabrera’s season still ended on a high note.

The third baseman was named the AL Most Valuable Player in a landslide over sabermetrician-favored Angels rookie Mike Trout. Cabrera became the first Venezuelan player to receive the award.

Juan Manuel Marquez

Fourth time’s a charm.

Ever since his first controversial loss to Manny Pacquiao in 2004, Marquez sought redemption. The Mexican boxer knew himself capable of beating one of history’s best pound-for-pound fighters, even if the odds always seemed stacked against him. Three close fights where Marquez always held his own but came up just short weren’t enough.

Many people within boxing circles questioned the value of a fourth fight between Marquez and the favored Pacquiao. The first three fights certainly embodied boxing at its finest, but hadn’t the public already seen this all before? The answer turned out to be no.

In 2012, Marquez made good on his promises to knock out Pacquiao. The 39-year-old Marquez provided the knockout of the year, laying out Pacquiao on the canvas in the sixth round of Pacquiao-Marquez IV.

While the victory does not erase Marquez’s previous 0-2-1 record against Pacquiao, Marquez can take satisfaction in walking away with the final and most decisive win that no fight fan will soon forget.   

Victor Cruz

From an undrafted free agent to a Super Bowl-winning star, Cruz boasts the kind of feel-good story Hollywood scriptwriters seek to snatch up. The salsa-dancing receiver had a breakthrough season last year, capping it off with an NFL championship ring.

He followed up on that impressive campaign with a Pro Bowl-worthy 2012 – 82 receptions for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns – earning him more than 500,000 fan votes to lead NFC receivers. (Of course, Cruz hopes to be unavailable for the Pro Bowl, making back-to-back Super Bowl appearances instead.)

Cruz also proved to be a bankable star, picking up endorsements from Campbell’s Soup, Time Warner Cable and Pepsi.

As if 2012 wasn’t a big enough year for Cruz, he also was tapped to appear in an ad supporting President Barack Obama’s reelection, wrote a book, saw his Young Whales clothing line expand and became a father.

Lows

Rafael Nadal

First injury, now illness. If anyone is looking forward to turning the page on 2012, Rafael Nadal is probably near the top of the list. The Spanish tennis star has been sidelined almost the entire second half of the year with a knee injury.

The knee injury, which has required significant rehabilitation, has kept Nadal from competition since he suffered a shocking second-round loss to No. 100 Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon. Nadal had made five straight Grand Slam finals prior to the loss.

Chosen to be the Spanish flag bearer and expected to defend his 2008 gold medal, Nadal withdrew from the London Olympics just before the start of the Games. Aside for occasional injury news updates, he’s been largely off the radar since.

Nadal was expected to make his comeback at a tournament in the United Emirates this week but has been hampered by illness. He also said this week the illness would sideline him from the Australian Open.

Pau Gasol

Things haven’t gone much better for the man who took over Nadal’s Olympic flag-bearer duties. Gasol has found himself having to deal with injuries and the wrath of Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.

Gasol has been on the receiving end of a fair amount of criticism from Bryant, going back to 2012 playoffs. Most recently Bryant accused Gasol of “whining” and said it was time for the Lakers’ forward to “put [his] big boy pants on.”  

But it’s more than just Bryant’s ire plaguing the 7-foot-1 Spaniard this season. Where exactly Gasol fits with the Lakers since the team added center Dwight Howard hasn’t always been completely clear.

Then there’s the injury issue. Gasol was out the first half of December due to tendinitis in his knees and now is suffering from plantar fasciistis.

Mark Sanchez

The Jets failed to make the playoffs in early 2012, and things only went downhill for Sanchez from there. While not solely at fault for his team’s disappointing performance, Sanchez certainly shouldered some of the blame. After being the toast of New York just a year earlier, criticism of the Jets’ signal-caller grew, and his popularity plummeted.

Then, the Jets signed Tim Tebow last spring in a move that seemed designed to erode any confidence Sanchez had. While coach Rex Ryan maintained that the Jets had full faith in Sanchez and every intention of keeping him as the team’s starting quarterback, the signing and ensuing media circus took its toll.

Sanchez struggled throughout the season. The Jets were eliminated from the postseason before Christmas. Sanchez was benched for third-string quarterback Greg McElroy, only to be called on to start again a week later after a concussion sidelined McElroy.

Adding salt to the wound, Sanchez made tabloid headlines after breakups with both model Kate Upton and actress Eva Longoria.

Ozzie Guillen

Expectations were high for the outspoken manager heading into his first season at the Miami Marlins’ helm. Suffice to say, he fell far short of them. Guillen’s brief tenure in Miami started off on the wrong note as comments Guillen made about Cuban leader Fidel Castro caused a controversy and created an uproar among the local Cuban community.

Guillen issued an apology and was suspended five games by the team. But he never fully bounced back, and the Marlins struggled, despite spending heavily during the offseason. Numerous reasons for the team’s shortcomings were bounced around from injuries to an inability to live up to the hype. Whatever the reason, Miami’s 2012 season was considered a failure – and Guillen was shown the door after just one year.

While Guillen insisted he would be fine in the wake of his firing (the Marlins have to honor his three-year, $7.5 million contract, so there’s no doubting that), going out in the NL basement certainly wasn’t the way he wanted go.

Of course, even when everything is going wrong, sports fans are famous for their optimism, for finding the bright side, for offering up an encouraging “just wait until next year.” Well, the wait is almost over. Next year is days away from becoming a reality.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz

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