Sunday, September 21, 2014

Steelers vs. Panthers preview

By David Newton and Scott Brown
September 19, 2014

Carolina Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker (43) is hit by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) in the first quarter of the NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright

The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 despite playing their opener without starting quarterback Cam Newton and their second game without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-1 after losing 26-6 to the Baltimore Ravens in prime time. 

Carolina defeated the Steelers 10-0 in Pittsburgh in the preseason finale for both teams, when few starters were on the field. Now these teams will see how they match up for real. ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown are here to break this one down: 

Newton: Scott, the Panthers have forced a league-best six turnovers in the first two games, and the Steelers haven't forced one. Pittsburgh also committed three against Baltimore. Do you see that being a big factor Sunday night? 

Brown: Absolutely. The Steelers have to take care of the football against an opportunistic Panthers defense, and they have to start taking the ball away. It has been an issue the past three-plus seasons; the Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010 in large part because they have consistently lost the turnover battle. 

The Steelers signed former Panthers free safetyMike Mitchell to give them a speedy playmaker on the back end of their defense, but he has not flashed in the first two games. I'm sure Mitchell would love nothing more than to make a couple of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays Sunday night against his former team. 

How is former Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotcheryfitting in for the Panthers and how much of a positive influence has the 11th-year veteran been for promising rookie Kelvin Benjamin

Newton: From a leadership standpoint, I'd have to give Cotchery an A. It's a much different climate on the field and in the locker room with Cotchery instead of Steve Smith, as you probably can imagine. Benjamin has all the physical tools at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds -- not to mention hands the size of a catcher's mitt. Having Cotchery and Jason Avant there to mentor him on how to block and handle not being a part of the play has been important. The improvement Benjamin made on the little things from Week 1 to 2 was noticeable. 

There is not much Cotchery or anybody can teach Benjamin about catching, though. In each of the first two games, he has made the type of phenomenal catch Cotchery and Avant probably only dream about. I have to admit I was starting to get skeptical of what Cotchery would offer on the field after the preseason. But in the first two games he has eight receptions for 78 yards. He is a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who has been outstanding. 

The Steelers have struggled to stop the run so far. The Panthers have struggled to run, and that is a big part of their game. What has been the problem on Pittsburgh's side? 

Brown: Wait a second, here. Are you trying to tell me that Jonathan Stewart and De'Angelo Williams aren't Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Tomlin sure made them sound like a fabled running back tandem this week. And since no coach has ever employed hyperbole in talking up an upcoming opponent, I'm going to assume Carolina's problems running the ball are an aberration. 

Seriously, whatever Carolina's struggles have been running the ball might simply be fixed by playing against a defense that always used to stuff the run. The Steelers haven't been good against the run since 2012, which was, not coincidentally, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's final season with the team. 

Hampton rarely lost ground while clogging the middle of the defense and often commanded double-teams. The Steelers' current defensive line has not consistently tied up blockers or maintained assigned gaps and, through two games, Pittsburgh has given up 170 rushing yards per game. The line simply has to start winning more battles up front for the run defense -- and the Steelers' defense as a whole -- to show significant improvement. 

Cam Newton is a running threat. Does the Carolina quarterback gain most of his rushing yards after escaping a collapsing pocket, or will Carolina run some read-option with him? 

Newton: What? No comparing Newton to Y.A. Tittle? Seriously, it's a combination of both, and the healthier Newton gets with his fractured ribs the more he will run. He took off for 13 yards Sunday on a read-option play that was similar to, if not exactly like, one coach Ron Rivera said his quarterback should have handed off on in practice to protect the ribs. 

The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March still isn't completely healed, which might explain why Newton looked somewhat awkward at times running against the Lions. But what makes him a weapon is you don't know when he's going to take off, whether it's a scramble when the pocket collapses or the read-option. He also refuses to slide and protect himself, as we saw last week. If the Steelers are as bad as you say at stopping the run, I'm sure Newton will take a few shots at them with his legs. 

What about Ben Roethlisberger? Is Big Ben still a quarterback who can carry a team? 

Brown: He'd better be able to carry the Steelers because Roethlisberger is the biggest hope they have of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons. I think he is still playing at a high level and I'm not ready raise serious concerns about Roethlisberger and the offense, although the Steelers have managed just nine points in their past six series. If the offensive line holds up, the Steelers are going to score points with the talent they have at the other skills positions, such as receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell

David, where are the Panthers vulnerable, and are you surprised by their 2-0 start? 

Newton: I'll answer the second part first. Not really. I actually picked them to start 3-0. The defense really is as good as advertised, and I figured that would be enough at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit. But I was surprised that Newton didn't play in the opener and that the offense played so well without him. I've been saying since early in organized team activities that Carolina is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago, and so far that group has proved me right. 

As far as vulnerability, the lack of a running game has to be concerning. The Panthers want to control the clock and want to keep the pressure off of Newton having to run. Without a running game, that gets tough. It will also be interesting to see whether Hardy's situation ultimately becomes a distraction. So far, it appears to have galvanized the locker room. 

Brewers edge Pirates 1-0 to tighten wild-card race

By Will Graves
September 21, 2014

Brewers edge Pirates 1-0 to tighten wild-card race
Edinson Volquez delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers in Pittsburgh Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Matt Garza provided the edge, even if it ended his night early.

Pitching Details

The Milwaukee Brewers took it from there, tightening the NL wild-card race with a contentious 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday.
Garza was ejected in the fifth inning after hitting reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen for a second time. The bullpen stepped in and kept the surging Pirates at bay with 4 1-3 shutout innings. The Brewers scored the game's only run on when Elian Herrera sprinted home on Logan Schafer's sacrifice fly off Mark Melancon (3-5) in the ninth.
Milwaukee drew within 3 1/2 games of the Pirates for the last playoff spot with eight days left in the regular season by winning for just the second time in its last 13 road games.
''We knew what we had to do and we know how things have been going,'' manager Ron Roenicke said.
The Brewers celebrated loudly in the hallway leading to the clubhouse, the kind of fire that's been missing during their lengthy September swoon. Garza, however, stoked the fire with 4 2/3 strong innings. His work included two run-ins with McCutchen.
Garza hit the Pittsburgh star center fielder on the left shoulder in the third then grazed McCutchen's elbow with the bases empty two innings later. Both plunkings came with two outs and the bases empty, hardly the kind of pitches meant to send a message.
''If people think I hit McCutchen on purpose, with a 1-2 count in a game like this, then you're just an idiot,'' Garza said.
Garza had hit just two batters in 158 innings coming in. McCutchen - who went to the disabled list in August with fractured rib cartilage shortly after getting drilled while playing in Arizona - figures Garza was just trying to work inside when the pitches got away from him.
''He didn't try to hit me but he got it in and I'm sure he's thinking it's better he hit me than me hit him with a homer or double or something,'' McCutchen said.
Zach Duke (5-1), a former All-Star with the Pirates, picked up the victory after getting the final out of the eighth. Francisco Rodriguez worked a perfect ninth for his 43rd save of the season and 347th of his career, moving him into a tie with Randy Myers for 10th on the all-time list.
Herrera reached on a forceout off Melancon (3-5) in the ninth and moved to third on Lyle Overbay's second double of the night. Herrera scored when Schafer's fly to left was just deep enough.
The Pirates left 10 runners on base and went 0 for 8 with men in scoring position.
''The pitchers were out there and kept putting up zeroes,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. ''We had some opportunities and couldn't push a run across and they got one late.''
Pittsburgh starter Edinson Volquez retaliated after the first plunking by throwing inside to Milwaukee star Ryan Braun, earning a warning to both benches, making Garza's ejection automatic even as he pled his case to home plate umpire Marty Foster.
''He just told me, 'In this type of situation, my hands are tied,''' Garza said. ''I said, 'Come on, you know it.' He's like, 'Yeah, I know' and all three umpires over there are like, 'You've got to understand the situation.'''
Garza's unexpected departure forced the Brewers to rely on an already taxed bullpen that had blown games on Thursday and Friday.
This time a string of six relievers stood firm after letting late leads slip away earlier in the week. The Pirates loaded the bases with one out in the eighth but Starling Marte lined to third and pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez grounded out to short against Duke.
Volquez lacked Garza's crispness early, needing 52 pitches to labor through the first three innings alone, but continued his remarkable bounce back season. The pitcher who went 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA a year ago while pitching for San Diego and the Los Angeles Dodgers lowered his ERA to 3.15 by keeping the Brewers off the scoreboard before exiting in the seventh..
Brewers: RHP Wily Peralta (16-10, 3.70 ERA) makes his 31st start of the season on Sunday. He is 2-1 with a 4.32 ERA in four career starts against the Pirates, all of the starts coming at Miller Park.
Pirates: RHP Vance Worley (7-4, 3.18 ERA) returns to the rotation after making a brief move to the bullpen when Charlie Morton was taken off the disabled list. Worley is 0-3 with a 5.48 ERA in four career starts against Milwaukee. He gave up four runs on 12 hits in a 4-3 loss to Milwaukee on Aug. 24.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Big win leads Pirates to unfamiliar territory

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Russell Martin takes a pie to the face from Neil Walker after beating the Brewers at PNC Park.
There’s a standing army of commentators pretending to understand not only the framework but the direction of the baseball postseason that begins in just 10 days, and plenty of them are talking about the Pirates.
But as we learned at the start of an fairly urgent three-game series with the Brewers Friday night on the North Shore, how the Pirates or the Brewers or anybody else in this discussion are going to act from one minute to the next in this crystallizing pennant race is truly a fool’s prophecy.
From the Bureau of Spontaneous Whiplash, for example, the Pirates spent seven long innings Friday looking like they were transforming from a team that scores three runs on one swing to scoring three runs in two nights — until they snapped back to three runs on one swing again — Russell Martin’s decisive rocket launcher of a swing in the eighth inning.
The Brewers, for another example, went from losing 13 of 14 to winning five of eight, then almost instantly threw away a critical game they led for 2½ hours.
“We gotta make pitches,” lamented Brewers manager Ron Roenicke after Martin set the place on fire with one out in the eighth. “Russell’s up there battling. You can’t make mistakes, and it’s not just him, all of those guys can barrel it up.”
In the case of Clint Hurdle’s team, however, there was at least one thing that could have been predicted confidently about the looming postseason, or at least I was willing to do it: I didn’t see them winning the final game of the NLDS and then sweeping the NLCS, nor did I see them winning Game 7 of the NLCS and then sweeping to their first World Series title in 35 years.
To do either of those things, you see, they’d have to win five games in a row, and maybe you’ve noted that until Martin’s heroics, until Friday night, they couldn’t win five games in a row.
It was fairly ridiculous, for as long as it lasted, which was only for the first 93.8 percent of the season.
Everybody else in this NL Central had won five in a row.
The Cubs had done it.
The Cubs.
The worst team in baseball, your Texas Rangers, had done it twice.
The Los Angeles Angels of Adjacent Orange County had done it six times.
Watching the Pirates trying to do this had become akin to watching cows trying to pick up a telephone.
So let the record show that in Game No. 153, on their seventh try at extending a four-game winning streak, the Pirates came from behind to beat the Brewers, 4-2.
The Cows had answered the phone.
“Hello? When are we coming home? Well wouldn’t you like to know!”
Read the rest of the article by clicking on the link below:

Martin's homer sparks Pirates over Brewers 4-2

By Will Graves
September 20, 2014
Martin's homer sparks Pirates over Brewers 4-2
Russell Martin (55) rounds first base past Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Mark Reynolds (7) after hitting a three-run home run off Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton during the eighth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. The Pirates won 4-2. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Russell Martin swatted at Jonathan Broxton's 96 mph fastball and watched as Carlos Gomez gave chase. When the ball cleared the fence just out of Gomez's reach, the Pittsburgh Pirates catcher thumped his chest as he rounded first base after providing the latest lightning bolt in a season full of them for one of baseball's most resilient teams.

Pitching Details

''It's hard to be happier than that,'' Martin said.
Buried in May, the Pirates are streaking toward October.
Martin's three-run blast off Broxton with one out in the eighth inning ignited the Pirates to a 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night and gave Pittsburgh a 4 1/2-game lead in the race for the second National League wild card spot with just nine days left in the regular season.
It's a spot that seemed impossible in the spring. At one point Pittsburgh trailed Milwaukee by 9 1/2 games. Now the Pirates have all the momentum. Pittsburgh has won a season-high five straight and 12 of its last 14.
Mark Melancon worked a perfect ninth for his 31st save. John Holdzkom (1-0) earned the win in relief for his first major league victory.
Pittsburgh spent seven innings getting overpowered by Milwaukee starter Yovani Gallardo, who struck out 11 before finally exiting after 112 pitches. Broxton (4-3), acquired on Aug. 31 to bolster a bullpen in anticipation of a playoff push, quickly gave it all away.
Starling Marte led off the Pittsburgh eighth with an infield single. Neil Walker singled with one out to set the stage for Martin, who had two ugly check swings before taking a 1-1 pitch and sending it into the second row of seats in right-center field for his 11th homer of the year and by far his most important.
''I was trying to go down-and-away,'' Broxton said. ''I don't know where it was. I don't watch the videos.''
Probably a good idea after the Brewers - who led the NL Central for 149 days this year - watched their playoff hopes take another devastating blow. Rickie Weeks hit his seventh homer of the season off Pirates starter Jeff Locke and Jonathan Lucroy added an RBI-single, but Milwaukee lost its third straight.
The Brewers let a 2-0 lead get away late on Thursday night against St. Louis and fell in extra innings. They arrived in Pittsburgh at 4 a.m. on Friday morning hoping to revive their season against a team they have dominated for years, including an 11-5 mark this season. Now they likely need to sweep the final two games of the series to have any reasonable chance of catching Pittsburgh.
''When you go to late innings, we're used to putting games away,'' Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. ''We've been really good all year in finishing out games, and we're not doing it right now.''
Gallardo did his part. He escaped early trouble and then settled down, retiring nine of the final 10 batters he faced before giving way to Broxton after 112 leave-it-all-out-there pitches.
The Pirates stranded six runners in the first four innings against Gallardo with nothing to show for it. Still, they remained upbeat after Gallardo tired.
''We're a team that has a pretty good offense. When you have somebody that neutralizes you, it's frustrating,'' Martin said. ''But we believe in each other and we believe when we get to the bullpen we can make things happen.''
Ike Davis added an RBI single later in the inning off Jeremy Jeffress to give Melancon a little extra cushion he wouldn't need.
Brewers: Milwaukee 1B Mark Reynolds was back in the lineup on Friday, going 0 for 3 less than 24 hours after a rare mental mistake opened the door to a late St. Louis rally.
''This guy, instinctually, is unbelievable,'' Roenicke said. ''That's why when you see those things happen, it's surprising. And, you know, why couldn't you do it in a game that didn't matter? Or a month ago, when maybe we were winning 6-0 in a game and you make a mistake? It's just when he made it that was so tough.''
Pirates: RHP Charlie Morton's return from the disabled list may be short-lived. Pittsburgh pulled Morton from his next scheduled start on Sunday after he felt discomfort in his groin and midsection late in his five innings of work in a victory over Boston on Tuesday. The pain intensified during a bullpen session on Thursday. Vance Worley will take Morton's spot in the rotation when the Pirates wrap up the series with Milwaukee.
Brewers: Matt Garza (8-8, 3.74 ERA) will make his third start against the Pirates this season. The right-hander is 1-0 with a 6.55 ERA versus Pittsburgh. He is coming off six solid innings in a victory over Cincinnati last Sunday.
Pirates: Edinson Volquez (12-7, 3.27 ERA) will search for his fifth straight victory when he faces the Brewers on Saturday. The 30-year-old is 2-1 with a 2.88 ERA in four starts against Milwaukee this season.