Thursday, September 29, 2016

Jaso hits for cycle as Pirates beat Cubs 8-4

By Alan Saunders, Associated Press
September 28, 2016
Pittsburgh Pirates' John Jaso hits a three run home run off Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016.
Pittsburgh Pirates' John Jaso hits a three run home run off Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016. (Gene J. Puskar/'AP Photo)

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PITTSBURGH -- Coming around second base in the seventh inning of the Pittsburgh Pirates' 8-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday night, John Jaso stumbled.
Then, he went for it.
Ninety feet later, Jaso was safe at third base with a triple to become the first player to hit a cycle in the 16-year history of PNC Park.
The triple off reliever Pedro Strop clinched the Pirates' first cycle since 2004. The last Pirate to hit for the cycle was Daryle Ward on May 26, 2004, in St. Louis. The last Pirates' home cycle was by Jason Kendall on May 19, 2000, against the Cardinals at Three Rivers Stadium.
Jaso isn't exactly a typical candidate for the cycle. He has neither prodigious power nor speed, as he hit just his seventh home run and third triple of the season. Jaso didn't even realize what had happened until he had already performed the feat.
"It didn't really dawn on me until I was standing on the base," he said. "I was looking at (third base coach Rick) Sofield and it finally just hit me."
Jaso's teammates were well aware of what was going on. Shortstop Jordy Mercer said they didn't want to jinx it by telling him.
"There was a little buzz going on and we were aware of the situation, but I don't think it's something you want to openly talk about when they have one more at-bat left," Mercer said.
But when Jaso looked like he might settle for a double after rounding second, Mercer and the rest of the bench became a legion of third-base coaches.
"We were just yelling, `Keep going! Keep going no matter what, just go," Mercer said. "It worked out. I couldn't be more happy for him. It was awesome."
Against Chicago starter Jake Arrieta (18-8), Jaso singled in the second inning, hit a three-run home run in the fourth and doubled in the fifth. Arrieta went five innings and allowed 10 hits and seven runs, both season highs.
"It's just a great memory to have," Jaso said. "You don't really want to take this blessing for granted being here."
Pirates starter Jameson Taillon (5-4) allowed one hit and struck out four in six innings.
Chicago's Anthony Rizzo hit a solo homer, his 32nd of the season.
The Pirates announced that they will play a two-game preseason series in Montreal against the Toronto Blue Jays March 31 and April 1, 2017. The Pirates haven't played in Montreal since 2013.
Cubs: OF Chris Coghlan left the game with a mild left ankle sprain. He ran into the wall in left field attempting to catch a fly ball in the fifth inning. . Manager Joe Maddon expects OF Jorge Soler (right side) to be able to play this weekend.
Pirates: After being officially eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday, the Pirates will shut injured reliever Neftali Feliz down for the season, and will be "backing away" from C Francisco Cervelli, according to manager Clint Hurdle. Cervelli had hamate surgery in July and has dealt with several minor injuries all year. . OF Gregory Polanco did not play with a stiff neck. He had previously missed three games with a facial contusion following a collision with the wall in left field.
Cubs: Rob Zastryzny (1-0, 0.79 ERA) will make his first career start. In seven career appearances, his longest outing is 3 2/3 innings. Zastryzny started 14 games for Triple-A Iowa this season with a 7-3 record and a 4.22 ERA.
Pirates: Ivan Nova (12-8, 4.37 ERA) has lost two straight starts after winning his first five decisions with the Pirates since coming over from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline. He has given up 11 runs (nine earned) and 18 hits over seven innings in his last two starts.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Steelers defense has been mostly famine with little feast this season

By Chris Mueller
September 28, 2016
Darren Sproles. (Jeff Fusco)
Darren Sproles scores on a 73-yard pass play last Sunday. (Jeff Fusco)
It isn't the injuries that are troubling. Injuries happen, and good football teams tend to find ways to overcome them, unless the battered party is the starting quarterback.
It isn't really the poor offensive showing that concerns me, either. The Steelers' stated goal of averaging 30 points per game looked laughable while they were bumbling their way around against an aggressive, vicious Eagles defense.
Those guys should be better, though. Their track record suggests as much, and they are getting back perhaps the best running back in the league in  Le'Veon Bell this Sunday night. They should be fine.
No, it was the performance of the defense, one that was lauded for its "bend, but don't break" quality through two weeks, that should be alarming.
The phrase "bend, but don't break" is really code for "this defense can't get sacks or force turnovers, but it generally tackles when it should, and keeps play in front of them."
Sunday, the Steelers did not do that. They got shredded by a rookie quarterback and eviscerated by Darren Sproles. They generated no pressure, with Jarvis Jones looking toothless as a pass rusher. They forced no turnovers, made no splashy plays.
Most of all, when a tough stand to start the second half may have changed the timbre of the game, the Steelers' defense folded like a cheap tent.
What is a defense if it isn't forcing turnovers, sacking the quarterback, or limiting teams to field goals more often than not?
Bad, that's what.
That's what Keith Butler's troops will be if they don't find a way to pick off some passes, generate consistent pressure, and make life uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
Last year's team, despite having no truly elite pass rushing threat, still racked up the third most sacks in the league. Even though they were often victimized through the air, they made several momentum changing interceptions. They were feast or famine, but at least they were predictable.
So far this year, it has been mostly famine, minimal feast, at least where dynamic plays are concerned.
The problems go deeper than that. First-round pick Artie Burns still looks very green, the secondary is already banged up, and Cleveland castoff Justin Gilbert may start getting playing time. What's more, Ryan Shazier, by now the obvious best player on that side of the ball, is banged up again and may not play this Sunday night.
There is time for Butler to come up with answers, yes, and the Steelers' offense should create more leeway than just about every other team has, but it's fair to wonder whether or not the talent is there to foment real improvement. When James Harrison still stands as your most fearsome healthy pass rusher, at least at linebacker, the situation isn't great.
Injuries explain some of this, but not much. It isn't like Bud Dupree set the world on fire last year. It isn't like Robert Golden is the second coming of Ed Reed or Ronnie Lott in the defensive backfield. The Steelers have used plenty of high draft choices to try and rebuild their defense, and outside of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, many of them have struggled to gain traction as pros.
When that happens, you're left trying to piece together something workable without much in the way of pedigree or polish. Where are the answers? There don't seem to be any easy ones.
There is plenty of reason to believe that the Steelers' offensive performance against Philadelphia was nothing more than a hiccup, and that a deep and talented roster on that side of the ball will soon find its level.
Unfortunately, the same goes for the Steelers' defense, except that in their case, finding their level may mean worse days are ahead.
Bend, but don't break? If Sunday was any indication, the Steelers' defense will be picking up the pieces on a regular basis this season.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Body Bag Game II: Steelers beaten, beat up in Philly

By Chris Bradford
September 26, 2016
(AP Photo/Chris Szagola). Philadelphia Eagles' Jordan Hicks (58) hits Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (7) after a pass during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Philadelphia.
(AP Photo/Chris Szagola). Philadelphia Eagles' Jordan Hicks (58) hits Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (7) after a pass during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA -- Around these parts it’s known simply as the “Body Bag Game.”
That is code for the Philadelphia Eagles' 28-14 win on a Monday Night game 26 years ago, a game played at old Veterans Stadium, a rat-infested, concrete eyesore across the parking lot from where the Eagles now call home.
That night, the Eagles -- a team which featured the great Reggie White and Jerome Brown on defense -- beat and beat up on the helpless Washington Redskins, who had nine players either carted or hobble off with injury.
By that standard, and that standard only, the Steelers’ 34-3 loss in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon wasn’t that bad. Other than that, it was a complete debacle.
The Steelers lost a “mere” six players to injury -- in no particular order, Ryan Shazier, Robert Golden, Lawrence Timmons, Ramon Foster, Eli Rogers and Mike Mitchell -- against an Eagles team that has neither a Reggie White nor Jerome Brown. Still, it was the Steelers' ninth loss in a row at Philadelphia, a stretch dating back to 1965. 
The Steelers were dominated on both sides of the ball at Lincoln Financial Field in a loss that goes down as the worst -- at least by margin of defeat -- in Mike Tomlin’s decade-long reign as coach. Keep in mind that Tomlin’s team lost last year in a near must-win Week 16 game to the injury-ravaged Baltimore Ravens that had nothing to play for.
“It was a poor performance by us, but when I say ‘us,’ I mean all of us,” Tomlin said. “It starts with me. They out-coached us, they out-played us.”
This 31-point loss to the Eagles and Carson Wentz, their star rookie QB, was as thorough as it was surprising. Before Sunday, most had the Steelers pegged as the Pennsylvania team most likely to reach Super Bowl 51. Not after this.
Injuries, missed tackles, dropped passes, bad penalties, blocked field goals -- the Steelers were guilty on all accounts.
“Those are all recipes for 34-3,” said linebacker Arthur Moats.
Or as defensive end Cam Heyward put it: "We got our ass kicked. I'll simply say it like that. I got my ass kicked. Everybody got their ass kicked."
Most disappointing was that the Steelers’ offense, believed to be the best in the league, never got untracked after a less-than-inspiring performance a week earlier against Cincinnati. This time, there was no rain.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 257 yards, but he was sacked four times and picked off once (it could have easily been four). His rating was a dismal 62.4. The only consolation for Roethlisberger was that his four sacks were four fewer than his previous trip to Philadelphia in 2008 and that season still ended with a Super Bowl victory. 
Antonio Brown had 140 receiving yards, but 85 of them were in the second half when the game was out of reach. The Steelers converted just four of 11 on third down.
“Collectively, we sucked,” Brown said. “We got blown out and couldn’t put up enough points.”
The running game, so effective in the second half in Week 1 and 2, was a moot point after the Steelers found themselves down 20-3 going into the half. DeAngelo Williams ran just eight times, twice in the second half, for 21 yards. The Steelers’ 29 rushing yards were their fewest since they ran for 36 against the Jets in a 2014 loss.
“We kind of had to get out of it pretty quick,” Roethlisberger said. “This is a really good defensive front seven, they have a really good defensive line and they we knew that it was going to be a good test.”
The Steelers started slow in their two previous wins but seemed to reverse that trend when they took the opening drive to the Philadelphia 18. A dropped Markus Wheaton pass in the end zone and a blocked field goal seemed to take the wind from their sails.
“It’s a huge momentum shift for sure,” said guard B.J. Finney, who took over for Foster in the first half. “It’s something you don’t want to have happen. They kind of got the momentum there but we have to do a better job of fighting back. We have to be able to roll with that and do a better job.”
Perhaps that lack of fight is what is most troubling with Sunday’s loss. The Steelers are no stranger to injuries or adversity, but they seemed to have thrived on it in the past. On Sunday, they didn’t.
Suspended running back Le’Veon Bell will return for next week’s prime-time game against Kansas City. It’s hard to think that Bell, or a combination of Walter Payton and Jim Brown, would have been enough for the Steelers on Sunday.
As good as the Steelers are or can be, they clearly have some more work to do and get healthy in the process.
While burning the tape of Sunday’s loss might seem the prudent move, Moats says the Steelers need to watch and learn from it.
“No, there’s always room to get better,” Moats said. “You just have to chew on it. Of course we didn’t want to go out there and have that performance but at the end of the day, it’s just the third game of the season.
“At the end of the day, we’ll look back at it and say, ‘Man, I’m glad that’s over.’”
On that last part, I think everyone can agree.

Steelers looked far from a trendy Super Bowl pick vs. Eagles

Jeremy Fowler Staff WriterSeptember 26, 2016
Image result for steelers eagles september 26 2016
Pittsburgh Steelers' Markus Wheaton (11) cannot hold onto the ball as he battles Philadelphia Eagles' Malcolm Jenkins during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
PHILADELPHIA -- No way the Pittsburgh Steelers are this bad.
That doesn't make it any easier to shrug this one off as a sluggish road performance.
The Steelers' sheer scope of awful play in Philadelphia was so broad, so uncharacteristic, that at least some lingering questions will be justified.
The words repeatedly sputtered out of defensive end Cam Heyward's mouth postgame: "We got our asses kicked."
Don't book those flights to Houston just yet. Super Bowl LI is still months away.
Though the Steelers won't be written off for the 34-3 beatdown by Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles, the loss was arguably the franchise's worst in nearly 20 years and raises concerns about the complementary passing game without Martavis Bryant and the defense's ability to handle speed.
At least the return of Le'Veon Bell in Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefsshould distract from what could serve as an offensive anomaly.
The last time the Steelers trailed by 31 points was Week 1 of 1997, when theDallas Cowboys held a 37-0 lead. The Steelers' streak of not trailing by 30-plus points was the longest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
That's what makes the lopsided loss so curious, no matter how phenomenal the Eagles were.
The Steelers' defense was so fired up by all the missed tackles Sunday that a few players were overheard in the postgame locker room saying the unit needs to watch the game film as a group Monday, not by positions as normal.
Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- worked on this night.
Getting blown off the ball.
Eagles offensive linemen parting the Steelers' defense like a hipster haircut.
Struggles covering the screen game, which coach Mike Tomlin said has been a problem for three weeks.
A successful running game held to 29 total yards.
Ben Roethlisberger (24-of-44, 257 yards, one interception) missing throws he usually makes.
"There's a lot of thumb-pointing to go around," Roethlisberger said. "It starts with me."
Several starters were in and out of the game, particularly on defense with linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons and safety Robert Golden. Clearly, the lineup shuffling threw them off. But a unit that had held up well without sacks showed its vulnerability when it couldn't apply pressure. The Steelers made the Eagles' screen-passing game a point of emphasis and still couldn't stop it. Then, with a hefty lead, the Eagles went to work on the ground. The inability to create turnovers will be a point of emphasis in the future. The Steelers have two interceptions and a fumble recovery through three games.
On offense, the Steelers faced questions about the lack of a legitimate No. 2 receiver with Bryant suspended. They made it work through the first two games, but that absence was pronounced Sunday. Returning from injury,Markus Wheaton had the chance to make multiple plays and couldn't, including a costly drop of a would-be touchdown on the game's first drive that set an ugly tone. By late in the game, Antonio Brown was the only pass-catcher with more than three receptions.
Heck, Brown might have been the only bright spot with 12 catches for 140 yards. Eighteen of Roethlisberger's 44 targets went Brown's way. The duo said the offense saw a variety of coverage looks, but the Eagles could sell out on the pass because the Steelers couldn't run the ball.
Bell's presence will be a welcomed one. But they need at least one more receiver to emerge as a consistent threat.
This was apparent on the Steelers' early third-quarter drive. Down 20-3, the Steelers were driving to midfield. Then, Roethlisberger and the offense missed on four straight passing attempts, two of which could have been intercepted. Not sure if the timing was off, but the offense left a ton of opportunities on the field.
Asked to describe that drive, Big Ben said, "We stunk." Asked to clarify, he said, "We all stunk."
As "Fly Eagles Fly" blared through the Lincoln Financial Stadium speakers, it's hard to know where the Steelers will fly to next.
Not Philly, where they haven't won since 1965.
They'll have to correct the mistakes back home.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Who I like, Steelers vs. Eagles

September 23, 2016
Image result for steelers eagles 2016
The Steelers haven’t won in Philadelphia since 1965. To put that into perspective, head coach Mike Tomlin was born seven years later.
Now, that streak is only at eight games, thanks to the Eagles playing in the NFC. But it’s a lengthy streak nonetheless.
A more important streak is this one: The Steelers are 19-2 against rookie quarterbacks since 2004.
Of course, Philadelphia will start rookie Carson Wentz Sunday against the Steelers. Wentz is 2-0, having beaten Cleveland and Chicago in the first two weeks.
The Eagles have done a nice job of protecting the young man, who now has all of 10 quarters of football, counting two in the preseason, in the NFL. They’ve averaged 33 runs in their first two games.
But they haven’t completely shackled the young QB and he’s done a nice job of finding the open man.
The Steelers will try to put a little more pressure on Wentz than either Cleveland or Chicago was capable. And by pressure, we’re talking about putting points on the board early.
Pittsburgh has started slowly in each of its first two games. But the Steelers are intent on starting fast in this one and forcing the rookie to keep up.
And to do so, they’ll attack the weakness of the Philadelphia defense - its secondary.
I liked Jalen Mills coning out of LSU. But he didn’t run well at the NFL combine and fell all the way to the seventh round. He’s playing a lot of snaps for the Eagles with Leodis McKelvin out and McKelvin will be out again this week.
That’s a juicy matchup for the Steelers, particularly Antonio Brown.
Expect Brown to have a big bounceback game this week after catching just four passes on 11 targets in the rain last week. Ben Roethlisberger will get his star wideout involved early and often as the Steelers try to take advantage of that matchup.
A couple of things to keep an eye on this game - in addition to the Mills-Brown matchup - will be how the Steelers handle defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and end Brandon Graham. Cox is an absolute stud and could give the Steelers trouble on the inside, especially with Ramon Foster at less than 100 percent because of an elbow injury.
Cox will line up mostly over David DeCastro and work some games with Graham on the right side, but don’t be surprised to see some inside stunts to Foster’s side or even having him switch things up to take a run at Foster.
The other thing to watch is this: In its first two games, Philadelphia has run 77 and 72 plays. Its opponents have run 52 in each game. That’s a huge disparity. It’s led to a time of possession advantage of 37:43-22:18.
But Eagles are converting just 26.7 percent of their third downs. They are, however, 4-4 on fourth downs. Doug Pederson isn’t afraid to roll the dice a little bit.
The Steelers are 3 1/2-point favorites to win this game and I expect them to jump on the Eagles early. If they take care of the football - Philadelphia is plus-4 on turnovers - they win this one going away.
I like Pittsburgh to win in Philadelphia for the first time since 1965, 27-17.

Stallings' pinch single in 11th lifts Pirates over Nats 6-5

By John Perrotto, Associated Press
September 24, 2016
Pittsburgh Pirates' Jacob Stallings (58) gets a shower from teammates Josh Bell, left rear, and Matt Joyce, right, during his post game interview after hitting a walk-off bases loaded single off Washington Nationals relief pitcher Yusmeiro Petit in the 11th inning a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. The Pirates won 6-5.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Jacob Stallings (58) gets a shower from teammates Josh Bell, left rear, and Matt Joyce, right, during his post game interview after hitting a walk-off bases loaded single off Washington Nationals relief pitcher Yusmeiro Petit in the 11th inning a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. The Pirates won 6-5. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

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PITTSBURGH -- Fans cheered when Mark Melancon came on to start the bottom of the ninth inning to try to protect a one-run lead for the Washington Nationals. The cheers got louder when the Pittsburgh Pirates' former closer blew his first save with his new team.
Rookie Jacob Stallings' pinch-hit single in the 11th lifted the Pirates over Washington 6-5 on Friday night, preventing the Nationals from clinching a postseason berth.
Sean Rodriguez's two-out RBI double in the ninth tied the score 5-5. Melancon blew a save for the first time in 13 chances since he was acquired from Pittsburgh on July 30 in a trade for left-handed reliever Felipe Rivero and a minor leaguer.
A brief video tribute was played on the scoreboard when Melancon entered the game.
"I didn't know they were going to put a montage up there," said Melancon, an All-Star in three of his four seasons with the Pirates. "It was classy. It was very cool to get a standing ovation. ... I wanted to tip my cap but I didn't because I didn't want to mess up my mojo. I should have tipped my cap."
Pittsburgh loaded the bases with one out in the 11tth against Yusmiero Petit (3-5) when Francisco Cervelli doubled, Andrew McCutchen was intentionally walked and Pedro Florimon walked. Rodriguez struck out and Stallings, a son of University of Pittsburgh men's basketball coach Kevin Stallings, grounded a 3-2 pitch into left field.
Pittsburgh's seventh win in nine games kept it on the fringe of the NL wild-card race.
Washington lost for the fifth time in six games. The Nationals have magic numbers of one for a playoff berth and two for an NL East title.
Despite the expanded September rosters, Stallings was the last player left on the Pirates' bench.
"I kind of did the math in my head," Stallings said. "Bases loaded, two outs was the only way I was going to come up that inning. (Bench coach Dave) Jauss came up and told me to be ready. I went down and hit on the tee before that inning. I knew I was the last guy, so I figured just in case."
Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa homered for the Nationals. Bryce Harper had three hits and Ryan Zimmerman hit a pair of doubles.
Zimmerman's RBI double in the second inning opened the scoring and was the 1,500th hit of his 12-year big league career. Espinosa followed with 23rd homer for a 3-0 lead.
Ramos led off a two-run sixth with his 22nd homer, a drive off Antonio BastardoJayson Werth drew a bases-loaded walk later in the inning as the Nationals went back ahead 5-3.
Adam Frazier had a sacrifice fly in the bottom of half.
Wade LeBlanc (4-0) pitched one scoreless inning.
Pirates left fielder Gregory Polanco left the game in the first inning when bruised the left side of his face when crashing into the fence while chasing a double by Harper.
Both starters, Washington left-hander Gio Gonzalez and Pittsburgh rookie Jameson Taillon, allowed three runs in five innings.
"It's disappointing because you want to wrap up a playoff berth as fast as you can but you're not going to win every game," Gonzalez said. "You've got to come back and get them tomorrow."
First baseman/outfielder Josh Bell is the Pirates' minor league player of the year and right-hander Mitch Keller their minor league pitcher of the year. Bell hit .295 with 14 home runs in 114 games for Triple-A Indianapolis before being promoted to the major leagues. Keller went a combined 9-5 with a 2.35 ERA in 24 starts at Class A with West Virginia and Bradenton.
Rookie right-hander Tyler Glasnow will start Sunday for the Pirates rather than rookie left-hander Steven Brault. Considering the organization's top propsect, Glasnow is 0-1 with a 4.11 ERA in five games, including two starts.
Nationals: 2B Daniel Murphy did not start for a fifth game in a row after an MRI revealed a strained glute muscle. He will sit out the three-game series be reevaluated.
Pirates: RHP A.J. Schugel (shoulder inflammation) was placed on the 60-day disabled list, opening a roster spot for LHP Phil Coke, who joined the team after being acquired Thursday from the New York Yankees. . LF Starling Marte (back) sat out after being removed from Thursday night's loss at Milwaukee in the third inning. He missed 15 games before pinch hitting against the Brewers on Wednesday night. . SS Jordy Mercer (right forearm tightness) missed his second straight game.
Nationals: RHP Joe Ross (7-5, 3.48 ERA) will start Saturday night, his second outing since missing 2 1/2 months with shoulder inflammation. He pitched three innings and gave up one run last Sunday against Atlanta in a no-decision.
Pirates: RHP Ivan Nova (12-7, 4.19) is 5-1 with a 2.93 ERA in nine starts since being acquired Aug. 1 from the New York Yankees in a trade. He took his first loss with the Pirates last Sunday, allowing five runs in three innings against Cincinnati.