Saturday, March 31, 2007

Pens' Roberts quietly guiding young team

By Rob Rossi
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Seemingly, there was little chance Gary Roberts would cause a stir inside the Penguins' locker room upon joining the upstart hockey club last month.
After all, Roberts is not one for saying a whole lot.

"From what I can tell, he's just not a talkative guy," rookie Jordan Staal said. "He doesn't have to talk."

Conversation with any Penguins player about Roberts, though, leads to rave reviews:

"He is an intense player," Staal said. "When he's on the ice, everybody knows."

"He is so focused," winger Michel Ouellet said. "He brings us an attitude every day."

"He sets an example for everybody," winger Georges Laraque said. "From the day we came here, you could tell that he would set the tone for this team."

To be sure, the Penguins belong to second-season superstar Sidney Crosby, who is the captain-less club's leader.

Still, Roberts' aggressive physicality on the ice and grueling commitment to fitness off it clearly has rubbed off on the Penguins.

Many players speak of the "little things" Roberts brings to the rink daily. In reality, those things -- fierce forechecking, gritty work along the boards and in the corners, and, most notable, his persistence for getting in front of the cage -- are not so little.

Neither is Roberts' attention to detail when it comes to staying in shape. His post-game workouts are often more exhaustive than the preceding contests. As Staal jokingly agreed, if Roberts' workout regimen is the standard, hockey players around the NHL are in trouble.

"I don't think you judge a Gary Roberts based on his points. He's about winning and doing what you need to do to win," said general manager Ray Shero, who acquired Roberts from the Florida Panthers at the NHL trading deadline.

With four goals and 10 points in 15 games with the Penguins, Roberts, despite a knee injury that kept him sidelined Thursday against the Boston Bruins, appears to be heating up as the postseason approaches.

Roberts, whom the Penguins say is day-to-day with a bone bruise, is expected to play tonight in Toronto.

Pending a long playoff run, Roberts could turn 41 during the upcoming Stanley Cup tournament. But pay not attention to his age, Shero warned.

"A lot of these players remember what Gary Roberts was like during those Toronto-Ottawa playoff series (earlier this decade). I certainly do," Shero said. "The way he plays this game is a great example of the way you have to play in order to have success in the playoffs."

Winning in the playoffs requires a certain attitude. Not to suggest that the Penguins lacked the mentality necessary to win a best-of-7 postseason battle, but they clearly have a different swagger since Roberts donned their colors.

"Some guys, when they are on the ice, you watch, and Gary is one of those guys," Staal said. "The first game he played for us, he was all over the place, hitting everybody, digging in the corners -- he even dropped the gloves. It was, like, 'Wow!'

"He's an intense player. Everybody in this dressing room realizes that and has picked up the intensity since he came. We're not in awe of him, but he definitely has our respect and attention."

For that reason alone, whether Roberts, a free agent-to-be, re-signs with the Penguins this offseason or continues his career elsewhere, he is likely to leave a lasting impression in Pittsburgh.

"His being here will have a long-term impact on our franchise for years," Shero said.

Rob Rossi can be reached at or (412) 380-5635.

Baseball 2007: McCutchen ahead of curve

Pirates' prospect class thick on Altoona roster

Saturday, March 31, 2007

By Paul Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen became the face of the Pirates' minor-league system this spring -- as a prelude to becoming the face of the major-league team in the not too distant future.

"I think McCutchen has come quicker than we thought, but, at the same time he's earned his way to where he is," said Brian Graham, the Pirates' senior director of player development.

"This guy has played well. He's handled the pressure. It's been more mental than physical. He has the ability to take pitches, to work the count, to play well defensively and make good decisions. He's done a nice job."

In a very short time.

McCutchen is less than two years removed from being taken by the Pirates with the 11th overall pick in the June 2005 draft.

And yet, this high school draftee out of Fort Meade, Fla., is less than six months from making his major-league debut.

"In the outfield, there are probably 75 or 76 things a player has to know," said Rusty Kuntz, a Pirates outfield instructor. "He has to know situations, backup coverages, how to catch the ball, how to do ground ball stuff.

"Baserunning-wise, there are probably 65 or 66 things a player has to know by the time he gets to the big leagues. This guy's going through them so fast. His progression is so quick. And it's not because of a necessity. It's because he's that good in applying information."

"This kid's got good tools, too," said Bill Virdon, a Pirates special instructor who was a pretty fair center fielder in his day. "...He seems to know how to play."

McCutchen, who won't turn 21 until October, hit .297 in the Gulf Coast Rookie League, .346 in the New York-Penn League, .291 in the South Atlantic League -- where the league's managers voted him the league's Most Outstanding Prospect -- and .308 in 20 games with Class AA Altoona in August.

McCutchen played for Altoona with Neil Walker, the Pine-Richland High School graduate who was the Pirates' top draft pick in 2004 and who ranks right behind McCutchen on the top prospect list.

In his first three seasons in the system, Walker made every minor-league stop as a catcher.

This season, partly because of Ronny Paulino's emergence as the Pirates' regular catcher, Walker has shifted to third base. The move could help Walker's emergence as an offensive force.

"The fact he doesn't have to squat 100 times a game, doesn't have to throw the ball back 150 times a game and doesn't have to take his gear on and off and doesn't have to call the game is going to improve his offense significantly," Graham said.

In his first three seasons, Walker batted .286. He also had 72 doubles in 1,046 at-bats, an indication he could develop into a power hitter.

Neil Walker played in the 2006 Futures game at PNC Park after having wrist surgery

"I've found third base the most difficult position to develop," Graham said. "One, you have to draft a guy who profiles -- a guy who can hit, hit for power and play good defense, and those guys are tough to find. And if you find them, they're usually not third basemen.

"So [with Walker] we've got a switch-hitter who can hit and hit for power."

McCutchen and Walker will play for Class AAA Indianapolis at some point this summer -- as will shortstop Brian Bixler, the second-round pick in 2004.

Bixler had a fine spring in the major-league camp this year after hitting a combined .302 in 493 at-bats for high Class A Lynchburg and Altoona last season.

"He's going to be a big-leaguer," incumbent Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson said. "And he's going to be a shortstop. Sometimes young shortstops get moved to second base or third base, but he's going to stay at shortstop."

Brian Bixler turns a sharp 4-6-3 DP for the Williamsport Crosscutters in 2004

Bixler's development enabled the Pirates to feel comfortable enough with that position's depth that they could include minor-league shortstop Brent Lillibridge in the Adam LaRoche trade.

"That's part of your farm system's job -- to help the big-league club through a trade," Graham said.

McCutchen, Walker and Bixler rank at the top of the prospect list in a system that's rebuilding.

"Certainly last year there were some bare spots," Graham said. "We're rebuilding because so many guys got to [the major leagues] so quickly. We had guys get there in a bunch. That's why we thinned out a little bit. And we had some injuries."

Among the Pirates' draft picks who arrived in the big leagues in the past three seasons are pitchers Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny, Matt Capps and John Grabow. Position players Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Jose Castillo and Paulino also are relative newcomers.

"I anticipate when the season starts we'll have more homegrown players on our 25-man roster than any team in baseball," Graham said. "Now the gradual progression has to start over, but I think we're in a very good state."

Pirates fans might want to keep their eyes on the Hickory club this season. It could include the next wave of young starters -- right-handers Brad Lincoln, Patrick Bresnehan, Jared Hughes and Stephen MacFarland and left-hander Michael Felix. All four were picked within the first nine rounds of the June draft.

Hickory shortstop Angel Gonzalez also is worth following. A switch-hitter, Gonzalez signed as a non-drafted free agent Jan. 23, 2003, out of the Dominican Republic.

"He has an above average arm, good hands, good range, runs a step above average and does everything well," Graham said. "Right now, he plays a little bit out of control, but that's just a matter of maturity and experience."

There will be other top position player prospects with Lynchburg.

Those include outfielders Brad Corley and Jason Delaney, first baseman Steve Pearce and catcher Steve Lerud. The first three are from the 2005 draft; Lerud, whose progress has been slowed by injuries, first played professionally in 2004.

Pearce last season hit 26 home runs and drove in 98 runs while splitting the year with Hickory and Lynchburg. Corley spent the entire season with Hickory and had 32 doubles, 16 home runs and 100 RBIs. Delaney also played the whole season with Hickory and had 27 doubles, 9 home runs and 75 RBIs.

"Pearce, Corley and Delaney all fall into the same mold," Graham said. "They'll play their way level to level and end up being pretty good players. They've all had success to varying degrees. It's a process, and it takes time. You really don't know what you have until they get to the 2,000-at-bat plateau unless they're really special like McCutchen."

Friday, March 30, 2007

Penguins top Bruins, 4-2. gain first place in Atlantic Division

Evgeni Malkin scores against Bruins goalie Tim Thomas in the third period last night in Boston.

Friday, March 30, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BOSTON -- The Penguins might want to hold off ordering the banner just yet. It's a bit early to start mass-producing T-shirts, too.

After all, much can change in the NHL over the next 10 days. And a lot probably will.

Nonetheless, the plain truth is that with little more than a week left in the 2006-07 regular season, the Penguins are in first place in the Atlantic Division.

And they're alone.

Their 4-2 victory against Boston at the TD Banknorth Garden last night raised the Penguins' record to 45-23-10 and made them the fourth 100-point team in franchise history. More important, it lifted them two points ahead of New Jersey in the race to finish atop the Atlantic.

Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury celebrate their 4-2 victory against Bruins last night.

The Devils, it should be noted, have a game in hand, are even with the Penguins in the first tiebreaker (victories) and have the edge in the second (head-to-head competition), so the Penguins hardly have a chokehold on the division lead.

"We just have to keep going," right winger Colby Armstrong said. "Make that final push."

Center Sidney Crosby is making one of those in his bid for the NHL scoring title. He assisted on the Penguins' final three goals to run his league-high points total to 116, 12 more than San Jose's Joe Thornton.

The Penguins -- especially Armstrong -- got a serious scare at 13:45 of the opening period, when his left eyelid was gashed by a high stick from Bruins center Petr Kalus.

The blow was inadvertent, but the Penguins' displeasure that Kalus wasn't penalized was obvious.

Coach Michel Therrien said "we were all surprised" there wasn't a call, and that includes Armstrong.

The difference is, Armstrong didn't waste much energy thinking about it until he was certain he hadn't suffered serious damage to his eye.

"It was pretty scary," he said. "I've never had that close of a call."

Armstrong spent the balance of the first period receiving medical treatment but returned for the second wearing a visor.

The Penguins played without left winger Gary Roberts, who has a bruised right knee. His spot in the lineup was taken by Nils Ekman, who logged 11 minutes, 33 seconds of ice time and recorded one shot.

The Bruins were looking to atone for their miserable showing in a 5-0 loss Sunday at Mellon Arena -- "They dominated the game because of our lack of effort," defenseman Zdeno Chara said -- and grabbed a 1-0 lead 45 seconds after the opening faceoff, when Brandon Bochenski threw an Andrew Ference rebound past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Erik Christensen got that back for the Penguins during a power play at 3:20, as he cashed in a Michel Ouellet rebound from the slot, and Armstrong put them in front at 9:18.

He got a pass from Christensen before sticking a backhander under the cross bar behind Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.

"It was just the right distance away from the net to get the angle to go in," Armstrong said.

Phil Kessel countered for Boston at 10:56, swatting the puck out of the air and past Fleury after Evgeni Malkin broke up his attempt to feed it into the crease, but Christensen countered 31 seconds later, putting a shot between Thomas' legs from above the left dot for what proved to be the winning goal.

"I told Max [Talbot] on the bench that I felt like I could get four or five," Christensen said. "That's the way it was going.

"I didn't really think of it like I was playing better than I had been. It was just one of those games where you find yourself in the right spots."

Christensen's second goal, however, was the last by either team until 11:30 of the third, when Malkin capitalized on a Crosby set-up for his 33rd of the season, and fifth in four games against Boston.

While no one will mistake this game for a 60-minute masterpiece -- "It wasn't as intense as probably what we're going to face in the next four games," Crosby said -- the two points count the same as any other pair.

And if the Penguins, who finished with 58 points in 2005-06, win one of their remaining four games, they will match the second-highest point total in franchise history.

But it says something about the maturity of this team -- never mind what so many of the birth certificates say -- that they are not fixated on that. Or even on the battle for first in the Atlantic.

"Our focus just has to be on the next game," Christensen said.

"We can't control what other teams do.

"It's great that we might have a chance to win the division, maybe get home-ice advantage, but that only comes if we're working hard and playing consistently."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at

Gene Collier: LaRoche's bat big enough to end losing

Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche signs collectibles before Monday's Grapefruit League game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Bradenton, Fla. The Pirates lost the game, 12-4 (3/26/07).

Friday, March 30, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On Jan. 18, 1947, the Pirates purchased from the Detroit Tigers the contract of power hitting first baseman Hank Greenberg.

One day short of 60 years later, the Pirates acquired from the Atlanta Braves power hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Thanks to the department of Things I Wonder About Without Knowing Why, and thanks especially to the wizards at the Elias Sports Bureau, the two facts at the top of this show can be said to be related. They describe the only two times in the entire history of your Buccos that the club added in the offseason a player who hit 30 homers or more the previous summer.

So don't ask again why all the buzz about Adam LaRoche.

Greenberg led the American League in homers in 1946 with 44, came to Pittsburgh near the end of a Hall of Fame career, smacked 25 more, some beyond the left-field fence the Pirates shortened specifically for him (hence the beloved term "Greenberg Gardens") and never played again.

LaRoche jerked 32 homers for the Braves last year, tied for seventh in the National League in slugging percentage and should end up playing the bulk of his career on the North Side. As of this writing, no plans are apparent to alter the Clemente Wall in right field or move the Allegheny River closer to home plate for LaRoche's pleasure.

But short of that, the acquisition of LaRoche is a landscape changing event for a franchise with 14 consecutive losing seasons. Should the Pirates draw close to 2 million again this year, a major portion of the audience will walk in for the same reason, to see LaRoche hit the ball over the wall in right, the wall placed in that exact spot for the kind of left-handed hitter the Pirates haven't had since Brian Giles went away. To an equally important extent, the club's often dispirited fan base can't wait to see what impact LaRoche's presence will have on the balance of a lineup that suddenly looks highly professional.

"I have not talked with him about expectations specifically," said Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, "other than having some discussions early on just to give him a sense that there were a lot of people who seem to like having him aboard in the middle of the lineup. We might have touched on expectations being larger than what he's had, but obviously he's been around that guy everyone depends on, and seen the way players like Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones handle it.

"Of course, when it's on your shoulders, it's a different situation."

That it is, and maybe you've noticed that the spring has not exactly bloomed with Bradenton dispatches describing LaRoche homers as long and frequent. You'd be perfectly justified in dismissing that as irrelevant, but come Monday, just about every move LaRoche makes will take on the kind of baseball relevance rarely seen in these parts in, oh, randomly, 14 years.

"He's growing into it," Littlefield said. "He's 27 years old, and I feel comfortable that he'll continue to progress. My sense of it is that he's been around baseball his whole life, and has performed well as he got more playing time last year in a challenging environment. He's had the experience of playoff baseball and played a lot of pressurized games."

With the Braves playing themselves out of contention in the National League East, LaRoche flourished in those desperate days after the All-Star break, when he hit .323.

The guess here is that LaRoche will thrive with the Pirates, and that he'll make the hitters around him better. If, for reasons other than health, he fails or regresses, both he and the general manager who weathered so much flak to acquire him could be in for a cruel, cruel summer.

On a team that hit a league-low 141 homers a year ago, LaRoche might be the most conspicuous new Pirate since, umm, Hank Greenberg.

If you're wondering how that worked out, the team Greenberg joined had won 63 games in 1946. With Hank aboard, the Pirates won 62, and that was with Ralph Kiner belting 51 homers. Hank's Hall of Fame presence apparently proved less inspiring to the likes of Dixie Howell, Jimmy Bloodworth and Eddie Basinski.

LaRoche will have better luck, helping the Pirates to their first winning season since 1992. I'm saying 82-80. It's what I said last year, and it's bound to happen eventually.

(Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.)

Bob Smizik: Parallels to '87 team provide a reason for hope

Friday, March 30, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Twenty years ago next month, a Pirates team left spring training feeling good about itself and its chances in the upcoming season and headed to New York for a series against a division rival. That team had a cast of young players that would etch a place in team history. At the time, though, their resumes were scanty.

Barry Bonds had the look of a good player, but certainly not the legendary one he was to become.

Andy Van Slyke had floundered so badly in St. Louis that the Cardinals had tried this outfielder for the ages at third base and first base.

Bobby Bonilla had been so lightly regarded the Pirates allowed him to slip away in the Rule 5 draft a few years earlier.

Doug Drabek, Brian Fisher and Mike Dunne, the team's three top winners, had the look of the heart of a solid rotation, but who knows with young pitchers?

We know what happened to that team. Three years later, with some additions and subtractions, it began a run of three consecutive division championships. The 1992 club is the last Pirates team to have a winning record.

In a few days, another Pirates team will leave spring training feeling good about itself and its chances in the upcoming season and head for Houston and a series against a division rival.

Do the 2007 Pirates have the same kind of future as the 1987 team?

A comparison of the two teams indicates the talent levels are not dissimilar.

Of course, there is no Bonds on the current team. None of the 2007 Pirates has given a hint of a future that includes Cooperstown consideration. But take away Bonds -- no small thing -- and the teams, at this stage of their developments, are not that different.

Jason Bay has the look of a player who will have a long and highly productive major-league career. Although he'll never be Van Slyke's equal in the field, he'll be a better hitter and run producer for a longer period of time. There's also reason to believe that first baseman Adam LaRoche can be at least as successful a hitter as Bonilla.

Bonds, Bonilla and Van Slyke were the heart of the Pirates' batting order. Complementary players Rafael Belliard, Sid Bream, Johnny Ray, R.J. Reynolds and Mike LaValliere filled in around them. The current team has similar players in Jack Wilson, Xavier Nady and Ronny Paulino.

The 1987 team got better in the seasons ahead by adding Chico Lind, Jay Bell, Don Slaught, Jeff King and Gary Redus to its core while losing Bream, Ray and Reynolds. The defensive lift that Bell and Lind at shortstop and second base gave that team cannot be overstated.

Much of how the 2007 team progresses will be determined by the play of such comparatively untested players as Chris Duffy, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Bautista. If those players can give the Pirates the kind of lift Bell and Lind did, the 2007 club will be even more similar to the '87 team.

But pitching, as always, is the difference. If the Pirates of 1987 had relied on Drabek, Fisher and Dunne to get to championship level, they never would have made it. Drabek, of course, became an ace and a Cy Young Award winner. Fisher won a total of 17 games in '87 and '88 but none the rest of his career, which lasted two more seasons. Dunne won 13 games in '87 and The Sporting News named him rookie pitcher of the year. He won 12 games the rest of his career.

The Pirates have better young pitching talent in 2007 than they did in 1987. If that talent progresses as Drabek did, the Pirates could be on a championship path. If it progresses as Fisher and Dunne did, they're doomed to many more sub-.500 seasons.

The 1987 Pirates had more behind Drabek, Fisher and Dunne, all of whom were acquired in trades. John Smiley came out of the minor-league system as did Randy Tomlin in 1990. Zane Smith was acquired in a trade (for Moises Alou) in '90 and Bob Walk reestablished his career.

To the current Pirates benefit, they have some good depth in their young starting pitching. This year's rotation will include Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny. All are 25 and younger. Anyone who follows baseball or just the Pirates knows the high failure rate of young pitchers. The chances of all four of them becoming successful major-leaguers is almost out of the question. For three of them to be successful would be unlikely. The Pirates need to keep developing pitchers and possibly will have to trade for one or find one in the free-agent market.

The Pirates are moving in the right direction. If they continue to do so, there will be a window of opportunity. But competition is fierce in baseball and many teams can outspend them. They need to continue to make smart personnel decisions, such as the trade that brought LaRoche, and they need to be willing to spend money to keep their current players and add some. If they do all that, they have a chance.

Know this, though: As talented as the 1987 team was, it finished 80-82 and had another losing season in '89 (74-88) before those core players began their championship run the next season.

With that history in mind and with the youth of the 2007 staff, we see this team finishing short of .500 -- 79-83.

"... take away Bonds -- no small thing -- and the [1987 and 2007] teams, at this stage of their developments, are not that different."

(Bob Smizik can be reached at

Ron Cook: Won't be fooled again; expect a 90-loss year

View from the press box: How the Post-Gazette columnists see the 2007 season playing out for the Pirates this season.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I'll give you that the Pirates should be improved. How can they be worse after losing 95 games last season? If you heard it once from manager Jim Tracy this spring, you heard it a million times: The real Pirates team is the one that went 37-35 after the All-Star break in 2006, not the one that was 30-60 before the break. That's his story and he's sticking to it. You also heard this question from Tracy time and again: How many of the team's 31 one-run losses a year ago would have been wins if Adam LaRoche had been in the lineup?

I'll also give you that the National League Central Division is a joke. The St. Louis Cardinals took the title with 83 victories last season and clearly are worse this season. The Houston Astros lost Andy Pettitte and, at least for now, Roger Clemens. The Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds had better win a lot of 11-10 games, their pitching is so weak. And, though the Milwaukee Brewers seem to be the chic pick in '07, they have had exactly one fewer non-losing season -- 81-81 in '05 -- than your Pirates since '92. That's really something to be proud of, isn't it?

I'll even give you that the Pirates can finish, at long last, with a winning record if everything goes right.

Absolutely everything.

The problem is that ain't going to happen.

Already, there have been problems.

I'm not talking so much about LaRoche's relative lack of power production in the Grapefruit League and Freddy Sanchez's knee injury. That isn't to say it's not a bit troubling that two of the three players the Pirates are counting on most for offense -- Jason Bay is the other -- have had quiet springs and, in Sanchez's case, could be slowed by a bad wheel for a week or two. It's that they have track records. They will hit when it counts.

I'm more concerned about Chris Duffy's lousy spring. It seems as he goes, the Pirates go. Last season, he got off to a miserable start, so bad that he felt sorry for himself and went AWOL after being sent to the minors in mid-May. It's hard to believe you can count on a guy who bails out on you in tough times such as that, but the Pirates are counting on Duffy, in large part, because he plays a mean center field and because he hit .282 after rejoining them Aug. 1. Their second-half mini-surge was no coincidence. You might be rooting for Duffy to fail -- better to get phenom Andrew McCutchen to Pittsburgh quicker -- but that's not going to help the Pirates win this season. They need to win now to end that pitiful 14-year losing streak.

I'm also concerned about John Grabow's elbow injury. The Pirates need to keep everyone healthy, especially their pitchers. Grabow is being counted on to be their top left-hander in the bullpen, a big factor in the offseason trade that sent Mike Gonzalez to Atlanta for LaRoche. You have every right to worry about how Salomon Torres will do as the Pirates' new closer. But you should be more worried about who's going to replace Torres' 80 or so appearances as a set-up man. Grabow needs to take a lot of those. You also should be worried about who's going to get out the tough left-handed hitter in the eighth inning with the bases loaded. Do you really want to count on Damaso Marte? Grabow had better get healthy soon.

If only Duffy and Grabow were the big concerns ...

At the moment, Tom Gorzelanny is the biggest worry.

The Pirates are betting everything on their four young starting pitchers -- Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Gorzelanny. None is the staff ace that the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter, the Astros' Roy Oswalt, the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano, the Reds' Bronson Arroyo and the Brewers' Ben Sheets are. But, collectively, they have a chance -- that's a chance, now -- to give the Pirates the deepest rotation in the division.

Snell, in particular, as well as Duke and Maholm, have shown this spring they might be up to the challenge. Gorzelanny has not. Sure, it's dangerous to put too much stock in spring-training performances. Maybe Gorzelanny will get his game together and pitch lights out when the games start to count.


Or maybe Sean Burnett will replace Gorzelanny in the rotation early in the season and pitch lights out.


If one of those two things doesn't happen, the Pirates are going to be in big trouble. It's bad enough that Tony Armas is in their rotation. The last thing the team wants is Shawn Chacon also pitching every fifth day. That would be really bad.

A year ago, I predicted a 73-89 record. That turned out to be wildly optimistic, not to mention silly. I'm not going to be so foolish again. Yes, the Pirates will be better with LaRoche and because of the sorry division. But they won't be good enough to get to .500 and end the longest current streak of losing seasons in the four major professional sports.


(Ron Cook can be reached at

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Baseball 2007: Five reasons to believe ... or not

LaRoche, starters promising, but Pirates' pool still shallow

Thursday, March 29, 2007

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

SARASOTA, Fla. -- They own the longest current losing streak in professional sports, have posted back-to-back 67-95 records and made exactly one significant personnel move this offseason.

Hope for the Pirates?

Sure, there is plenty to be found among those in spring training.

But it remains to be seen how much is grounded in reality or wishful thinking.

To start, here are five reasons why the Pirates could -- that is could -- be winners for the first time since 1992:

5. The division will be tight.

Look at it this way: More than one national expert is picking Milwaukee -- not a typo -- to finish first.

No matter how it is broken down, aside from the Chicago Cubs spending a quarter billion dollars to upgrade their lineup, and aside from the Brewers having a promising young group poised to make a move, the rest of the Central went backward.

St. Louis, which won the division with just 83 victories last season, saw its rotation decimated in the offseason and now has Kip Wells at No. 2 on the depth chart. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte are gone in Houston, and Carlos Lee's big bat will not replace that. And Cincinnati did little to improve a roster that probably was lucky to linger in the hunt last season.

Pirates manager Jim Tracy prefers to focus on his team, but he did say this with a confident tone: "It's a very competitive division, and we'll be competitive, too."

4. That winning second half.

Can't wait till next year.

One needs to spend no more than 30 seconds around Tracy to hear the figure: 37-35.

He repeatedly and passionately cites the Pirates' record after the All-Star break -- their first winning mark in the second half since, yes, 1992 -- as evidence that the players not only improved individually but also came together to create what he calls "a great clubhouse."

Although the offense actually was worse in the second half -- fewest runs in Major League Baseball -- Tracy's point has merit mostly on the pitching staff lowering its ERA from 4.93 to 4.01, third lowest in the National League, and the team's record in one-run games swinging violently from 9-27 to 15-4.

And that is why he constantly pushes for a carryover effect.

"That didn't happen by accident, what you saw in the second half," Tracy said. "That happened because these players grew up."

3. The defense will be better.

Gloves have to be better, right?

If only because it could not be much worse.

The Pirates' defensive efficiency ratio -- balls put in play that resulted in outs -- was one percentage point away from being the worst in the majors since 1960. No matter how many were bloops or blasts, that clearly points to not nearly enough gloves getting wrapped around balls.

But there is cause to believe that will change.

Ronny Paulino might have gotten his rookie miscues out of the way. Adam LaRoche is a large upgrade at first. Freddy Sanchez should be more reliable at second than Jose Castillo. Jack Wilson is highly unlikely to make 18 errors again. And having full seasons from Chris Duffy and Xavier Nady in the outfield will bring upgrades, too.

"There's no question in my mind we have people to catch the ball," LaRoche said.

2. The attack will be more balanced.

Adam LaRoche's impact will be felt.

What makes LaRoche's addition so important is not just the 30-plus home runs and 90-plus RBIs he could bring. It is the effect on the lineup as a whole.

For one, he creates a true heart of the order, along with Sanchez and Jason Bay.

For another, he gives what had been the league's most right-handed outfit some needed diversity.

Consider the Pirates' Aug. 21 game in Atlanta last season, when John Smoltz -- as he acknowledged afterward -- needed only a limited repertoire of pitches to produce a one-hit shutout. The lone hit came off the left-handed bat of Duffy.

Smoltz's view of the Pirates now?

"You've got to have some balance in your lineup and, with Adam in there, they now have some," he said. "That makes you think differently as a pitcher. For me, last year, a fastball and slider was all I needed to get them out."

1. The young rotation will improve.

The maturation process accelerates.

If the Pirates are to succeed, this truly must be No. 1.

Zach Duke and Paul Maholm had poor starts to 2006. Even Snell, who wound up winning 14 games, struggled early and almost was sent to the minors. But all three did fine down the stretch, Duke and Maholm each reclaiming peak form.

If those three perform to their potential -- still a large if, but hardly unthinkable -- and the Pirates can get just passable work from Tom Gorzelanny and Tony Armas, the pitching could provide the anchor for 2007.

Average age of the rotation: 24.8.

"As long as we pitch well and do our thing, I think we'll have one of the better staffs in the league," Maholm said. "But we can talk about it all we want. We have to go out there and actually do it."

Now, here are five reasons why the Pirates will wind up with a 15th consecutive losing season, one shy of the major-league record set by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1933-48:

5. The ceiling is too low.

Looking up in Florida, but here?

Although the Pirates will remain among the majors' youngest teams, it would be inaccurate to portray the roster as one with potential appreciably greater than what it already has achieved.

Really, how much higher can Sanchez's batting average go than .344?

Or Paulino's rookie .310?

Even Bay, so consistently terrific these past three years, cannot improve much on his standard 30-plus home runs, 100-plus RBIs.

So, where will it come from? Many believe LaRoche remains on the ascent, that Duffy could become a good leadoff hitter for longer than two-month stretches, and that the rotation could mature.

But do not confuse this group's ceiling with that of, say, the Florida Marlins.

4. Which Chris Duffy?

Will the real Chris Duffy step up?

The Pirates' center fielder and leadoff man is, without a doubt, their most unpredictable factor, if only because his brief time in the majors has known the most dramatic fluctuation.

He could, on the upside, be a premier glove man at his position, as well as a dynamic catalyst offensively, as he was in the second half of 2006 in batting .282 and stealing almost at will.

But he also could be the unhappy, unproductive player whose season-opening .194 slump resulted in his walking away from baseball for a month.

Having that large a variable batting first is ominous.

3. Will any lead be safe?

Salomon Torres: Ready for more?

Giddy as the fans' reaction was to the LaRoche trade, out the door was 24-for-24 closer Mike Gonzalez. And his departure created not one but two potential holes:

On one hand, it remains to be seen if Salomon Torres can close. He was spectacular in that role in September but is a notoriously slow starter. The Pirates can ill afford a handful of blown saves in April.

On the other, no one can make up for Torres' 94 appearances as setup man. Not when Matt Capps (85 appearances), Damaso Marte (75) and John Grabow (72) already were taxed so heavily in 2006.

"I think we're up for the challenge," Capps said. "Gonzo is irreplaceable no matter how you look at it, but I don't think we're going to try to replace him. We're going to try to go about things as best we can. We're going to have a little more depth and the younger guys, like myself, have a little more experience."

2. Precious little depth.

Some injuries hurt more than others.

The Pirates have some pitching to spare, but there are few answers if a key position player is injured.

Just picture someone like Bay going down for an extended stretch. Who would take his place?

What if LaRoche were hurt?

Or Sanchez?

Or Paulino?

It is possible, of course, that the Pirates could spend the $8 million or so remaining under their self-imposed limit to shore up deficiencies. But the previous time the team made an in-season move like that was 1997, when Shawon Dunston was brought in as a late-season reinforcement, so precedent is exceedingly rare.

1. That seven-letter word stitched across the front of their jerseys.

That's P-I-R-A-T-E-S.

It might seem silly to place an intangible atop the list, given the Pirates' other shortcomings. But their recent history should not be understated.

If they get off to another lousy start how will the fans at PNC Park react for the home opener April 9? And the newspapers, talk shows and Web boards?

It will get nasty, and it surely will weigh on the players.

Or maybe not.

If one listens to Wilson, it will simply spur them on to succeed.

"This is what I think," he said. "The best thing we can do is to be the Pirates."

Say what? "It will be good to have that chip on our shoulder, to have everybody in here to wanting to prove everyone else wrong. Right now, the best thing this team has going for it is that it has lost 14 seasons in a row. I mean that. Let's get ticked off about it. Let's get excited about what it would be like if we won."

He paused.

"Seriously, how awesome would that be?"

(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pens Are at Home On Road, Top Caps

Sidney Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer, finishes with a goal, an assist and six shots to help Pittsburgh all but ensure the franchise's first playoff berth since 2001.

Penguins 4, Capitals 3

By Tarik El-Bashir
The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 28, 2007; E04

One of the season's largest crowds packed into Verizon Center last night to catch Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals take on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Unfortunately for the home team, a large percentage of those fans wore black and gold -- and they weren't afraid to voice their allegiance.

At times, in fact, it sounded like a home game for the Penguins, who fought back from an early two-goal deficit, struck three times on the power play and skated off with a 4-3 victory, which clinched the franchise's first playoff berth since 2001.

"Obviously their fans have something to cheer about," said Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig, who finished with 25 saves. "They've had quite a turnaround from last season and they are playing good hockey."

Much of that stunning turnabout has to do with Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer. The dynamic 19-year-old had a goal, an assist and six shots for the Penguins, who also got a pair of goals from defenseman Ryan Whitney and 27 saves from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Ovechkin, meantime, set up the contest's first goal with a slick pass, but had an otherwise quiet night, despite skating 23 minutes 31 seconds. In his quest for a second straight season with at least 50 goals, the 21-year-old all-star remains stuck on 43 with five games remaining.

"They do great job on the power play, but five on five I think we beat them," Ovechkin said. "We played well today and we have lots of chances to score goals."

But they didn't, and now they've dropped four straight and 13 of the past 15. They also were swept by the Penguins in the season series for the first time (0-4).

With about two minutes remaining, Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon pulled Kolzig in favor of an extra attacker. The strategy paid off with 32 seconds left when defenseman Milan Jurcina scored to pull the Capitals within a goal. But they weren't able to squeeze another past Fleury, who stopped four of five Capitals' attempts in the waning moments.

"We're not the type of team that quits," Fleury said, before adding about the large contingent of Penguins fans, "That was pretty cool, to be on the road and see our fans traveling to watch us play."

When the teams hit the ice for warmups, the Capitals were booed by the out of towners in the sellout crowd of 18,277. When the Penguins emerged, Crosby was showered with chants of "M-V-P!"

One Penguins fan held up a sign that read, "25 Tickets: $975, Party Bus: $1,375, 30 More Years Beating the Caps: Priceless." Another lifted a poster board with the words, "Sid 4 MVP."

They didn't have much to cheer about early on, at least.

Alexander Semin put the Capitals ahead 1-0 at 5:59 of the first period, when he finished off a perfectly placed pass from Ovechkin.

And only 3:19 later, Boyd Gordon extended the Capitals' edge to 2-0 when he snagged Matt Pettinger's blocked shot in the slot and slipped it underneath Fleury.

Penguins Coach Michel Therrien called a timeout to settle down his players, and less than three minutes later, with the Penguins on the power play, Michel Ouellet fired a rebound past Kolzig to cut to the Capitals' lead in half.

The Capitals squandered a four-minute power play -- Kris Beech missed a wide-open net -- later in the first period, which ended with Washington still clinging to that one-goal edge.

But not for long. Whitney fired a Crosby pass past Kolzig on the power play at 1:10 of the second period to even things at 2. Then Crosby struck on a man advantage 5:11 later after he jammed in a loose puck during a scramble in front of the net. Kolzig was without his stick, which was knocked away during a tussle with Gary Roberts.

"We have to be a little tougher in front when your goalie doesn't have his stick," Kolzig said.

The Penguins continued to take the game to the Capitals, and they eventually made it 4-2 at 15:52. On the play, Capitals enforcer Donald Brashear squared off with Penguins heavyweight Georges Laraque just as the puck entered the net. The scrap was a disappointment, as two of the league's top fighters traded only a couple of punches before wrestling each other to the ice.

"I was really surprised the ref didn't blow the whistle earlier," said Laraque, who earned a fighting major and an assist on the play. "We got lucky on that one."

Ron Cook: Faneca is taking care of business -- as usual

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Don't worry about All-Pro guard Alan Faneca missing the Steelers' voluntary offseason workouts. Please repeat after me: They are voluntary, and this is the offseason. Big Al will be ready to go in July. He's always ready to go.

You want something to worry about?

Worry about where Faneca will be for the 2008 season.

I'm thinking the desert with old friends Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm.

It's nothing personal.

It's strictly business.

Don't believe the nonsense that Faneca is mad because the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin as coach. Sure, he opined that he would have preferred the team stay in-house and go for Whisenhunt or Grimm, now the head coach and assistant head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He's human, isn't he? Who among us likes change? Who isn't more comfortable with what he or she knows?

Don't buy the garbage that Faneca is angry because the Steelers cut Joey Porter. Yes, Porter was extremely popular among his teammates, the emotional leader of a veteran team just a year removed from a Super Bowl. But Faneca, Hines Ward and the other vets who expressed their dismay about Porter's release understand the nature of the salary-cap system. They'll get over their angst. They know there's only so much jack to go around. If Ward, for instance, hadn't asked for so much a few years ago, there might have been enough to keep Porter.

This really is about business.

It's pretty safe to say Faneca wants to be the NFL's highest-paid guard. He has every right to feel that way; he has made six consecutive Pro Bowls. Beyond that, he has been just about the perfect player, a trusted team leader, a captain. He has missed just two games in nine seasons. He has volunteered to play tackle when the Steelers have had injuries, risking his All-Pro and Pro Bowl status. He even has been huge in the community with his charity work.

But it's just as safe to say the Steelers aren't especially interested in meeting Faneca's price. It seems much more likely that they'll pay the really big money to safety Troy Polamalu, who, like Faneca, can become a free agent after the '07 season. It's not because they don't like Faneca as a player. They love him. It's because the market for guards has become obscene.

It was one thing for the Minnesota Vikings to give Steve Hutchinson a seven-year, $49-million deal last year, including $16 million guaranteed. Like Faneca, Hutchinson is an elite player. But this offseason, the Cleveland Browns gave a similar deal to Eric Steinbach, only with more guaranteed money, $17 million. The Buffalo Bills did virtually the same contract with Derrick Dockery and guaranteed $18.5 million. Neither Steinbach nor Dockery has made a Pro Bowl.

The Steelers' philosophy long has been that just because another team is stupid doesn't mean they have to be stupid, too. It's pretty hard to argue with their reasoning or their success. They already have signed free-agent guard/center Sean Mahan -- late of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- as insurance in case Faneca leaves. They'll still make Faneca their best offer on an extension before training camp, but it's hard to believe it will be for what he wants.

If it does come to that, here's hoping Faneca turns down the offer without going through the farce of a training-camp holdout. That's a waste of everyone's time. The Steelers aren't going to blink. They never blink in negotiations. Faneca might hold out, but it's inevitable that he'll come back in the end, play out his contract and then sell himself to the highest bidder.

The Cardinals, for instance.


You don't think maybe there already has been a wink and nod between Whisenhunt, Grimm and Faneca, do you?

I hate being so cynical.

It makes sense that the Cardinals would be interested in Faneca. With Whisenhunt orchestrating the plays and star talent Matt Leinart, Edgerrin James, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin at the skill positions, the team is just a quality lineman or two away from having a terrific offense. Faneca would be a great fit and would be paid accordingly.

It's not because Whisenhunt and Grimm like him so much.

It's strictly business.

Penguins win, clinch playoff spot

Ryan Whitney scores twice, Sidney Crosby gets goal and an assist as Penguins sweep season series from Capitals, remain tied with New Jersey and tie Ottawa.

The Penguins celebrate their fourth goal against the Capitals last night in Washington.

By Dave Molinari

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON -- Sidney Crosby recalls attending prep school in Minnesota in the spring of 2001, getting ready for his entry into major-junior hockey a couple of years later.

Ryan Whitney was a senior at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was participating in the U.S. national developmental program.

Georges Laraque, right, and the Capitals' Donald Brashear battle in the second period last night.

And Mark Recchi was a respected veteran, with a Stanley Cup ring and hair that was thinning a bit on top.

OK, so not everything has changed over the past six years, but one thing finally has: The Penguins are part of the NHL playoffs again.

Their 4-3 victory over Washington at the Verizon Center last night completed a sweep of the season series and raised their record to 44-23-10. That's good for 98 points, enough to lock up a place among the top eight clubs in the Eastern Conference.

Not that there was a raucous celebration -- or even a tame one -- to mark the occasion. Forget champagne in the locker room; there wasn't so much as a can of diet cola to be seen.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said he was not aware the Penguins had clinched until a reporter mentioned it, although he allowed the accomplishment was "pretty cool."

The lone negative for the Penguins was that left winger Gary Roberts left the game after taking a shot off the knee. Roberts, walking with a slight limp after the game, described himself as "day to day" and said everything done for his injury so far has been "precautionary."

Therrien said Roberts "probably" will play when the Penguins visit Boston tomorrow at 7:08 p.m., although his injury will be looked at again today.

It's been clear for a while that the Penguins would qualify for the postseason -- "I told the players we were going to make the playoffs about three weeks ago," Therrien said -- and their focus lately has been on winning the Atlantic Division, or at least nudging past Ottawa for fourth place in the East.

"It's a great accomplishment for this team, and we're proud about clinching the playoffs," Therrien said. "But ... we want more."

The Penguins are tied with the Devils for first place in the Atlantic, although New Jersey has a game in hand. The Penguins did get help from Boston, however, as the Bruins won, 3-2, in Ottawa, allowing the Penguins to pull even with the Senators.

Crosby had a goal and an assist to push his league-leading points total to 113. San Jose center Joe Thornton, who is second in the race, had 104 before the Sharks faced Los Angeles last night.

The Penguins were guilty of some ghastly defensive lapses during the first half of the opening period -- Capitals forwards were left unchecked in front of the net on several occasions -- and Washington exploited them with goals by Alexander Semin at 5:59 and Boyd Gordon at 9:18.

"The effort we were putting in at the beginning of the game was embarrassing," right winger Georges Laraque said.

Therrien obviously agreed because he called his timeout after Gordon scored and did not use the break to congratulate his players on their outstanding effort to that point.

"He gave it to us a little bit," Whitney said.

That timeout had a lot to do with reviving the Penguins, but so did a power play that scored on its first three opportunities.

Michel Ouellet pulled the Penguins within a goal when he swatted in a Brooks Orpik rebound at 12:08 of the first. Whitney tied the game at 1:10 of the second after taking a cross-ice feed from Crosby, and Crosby put the Penguins in front to stay at 6:21 by jamming in a shot from the right post.

"We were able to get some shots through [on the power play], maybe cause a little more havoc and open up those lanes to get some nice plays," Crosby said. "It wasn't so much a system as pure hard work."

The Capitals finally managed to kill a penalty as the second wound down, but didn't have much chance to enjoy it: Eleven seconds after a roughing minor to Donald Brashear expired, Whitney beat Olaf Kolzig from inside the left circle again at 15:52 to make it 4-2.

Milan Jurcina got the Capitals within one by scoring with 31.9 seconds left in regulation, but Washington's comeback ended there. So did the Penguins' run of springs without a playoff appearance.

"It was a tough year last year, and we've been working hard this year toward that," Crosby said. "To know we're in there now feels good."

The Capitals' Chris Clark falls to the ice after taking a hit from the Penguins' Gary Roberts last night.

(Dave Molinari can be reached at

Tomlin's aggressiveness shows up at every turn

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PHOENIX -- He preaches aggressiveness, and this week Mike Tomlin showed just what that might mean in his new job as the Steelers' head coach.

USAirways, Tomlin said, lost the bag he checked on his direct flight to the NFL meetings in Phoenix from Pittsburgh and gave him the run-around since that occurred Saturday night. Sunday, he was told his bag was in Phoenix and would be delivered to his hotel within four hours. He waited; no bags. He called, again and again.

Monday, Tomlin rode to the airport "to dig it out myself."

"I get over there, and they tell me the bag is not there," Tomlin was saying at breakfast yesterday morning. "I said, 'I've been talking to your call center all weekend, and they said the bag is here.'

"They said, 'I don't care what they told you on the 1-800 number, your bag isn't here.' "

He was offered a $25 voucher on his next flight for his troubles.

"Well, somewhere during the conversation, I see my bag behind her in a pile," Tomlin said. "I said, 'That's my bag!' She said, 'Sir, your bag's not here, the computer says'... I said 'I understand what the computer says, but I'm looking at my bag! It's a black bag, Pittsburgh Steelers. It's my bag.'

"So, I walk around the counter and at that point, she started to get mad. I pulled the tag off and showed her it was my bag. I had to dig it out myself."

Tomlin related that story to a handful of writers gathered around him yesterday as the morning sun popped up in the desert. Perhaps, he did not mean it to be that way, but the narrative served to portray his approach to his job as Steelers coach. He wants to be aggressive, something he has repeated many times since his arrival here.

He also began revealing his plans for the Steelers in 2007 and what he thinks of some of his players. Yesterday, for instance, he publicly committed for the first time to staying with a 3-4 as his base defense next season.

"I know what it does to offenses, I really do," Tomlin said. "It's all about the personnel you have. We have the best 3-4 people in the world, I think. That's what we're going to do."

The more Tomlin looked at the way the Steelers played the 3-4, the more it convinced him to stick with it under coordinator Dick LeBeau rather than try to convert to a 4-3 Tampa 2, the type he coached with the Buccaneers and the Minnesota Vikings.

"To me, I was excited because I came into this league, a mecca, if you will, for the 4-3 defense in the Tampa 2, working with Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin," Tomlin said. "Now, I'm working every day with what I believe to be the mecca for a 3-4. If you look at my growth development as a coach, man, it doesn't get any better than that. To be around Monte Kiffin and Dick LeBeau, I think you guys will agree with that. It doesn't get any better than that."

The most unsettled position on his Steelers defense may be at cornerback, where Ike Taylor has attracted much of the new coach's attention. Taylor, who signed a fat contract extension before the season began, was benched by coach Bill Cowher midway through it. One of Tomlin's big jobs is to salvage him.

"He's big, he's physical, he's fast. That's what I look at," Tomlin said. "What specifically happened last year in terms of his play, it's irrelevant to me.

"He's capable of a lot. He's capable of being a dominant player, and it's important that he embraces that as we move forward. I know that maybe he's disappointed in how he performed last year. Hopefully, that's fuel for him as we approach this year. ... I know he has the physical tools to be an elite corner. Our job and his job is to make sure that happens."

The mirror of that position on offense comes at wide receiver and whether or not the Steelers have the kind of talent at the position to make defenses respect their passing game.

"There are some questions there," Tomlin said. "It's a big year for Santonio [Holmes], of what kind of player he's going to be. He and I have talked quite a bit about that. That jump a player makes from his rookie year to his second year is critical in terms of what kind of career he's going to have. He's made some plays, he's had some success. He needs to move forward.

"I think some of the things that Nate Washington is capable of has been evident, studying the tape. He needs to move forward.

"I like what the group is capable of being. Satisfied? No. Until you get to know me, you'll realize that very rarely am I satisfied. At the same time, I'm not negative."

There also are the ongoing questions about Ben Roethlisberger and Tomlin's emerging relationship with his quarterback.

"He's a unique guy," Tomlin said. "He's in the building, he's taking an active part in the development of the playbook. He's working well with" coordinator Bruce Arians and quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson.

"I studied the personality types in this game and you know a guy who is uniquely talented like him, a competitor, a ridiculous competitor, a very prideful guy. I haven't been surprised in my reactions to him in terms of maybe what I thought him to be in a personality standpoint."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mike Prisuta: Steelers' Harrison unafraid of double duty

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

James Harrison is more worried about the Steelers' ability to replace him on special teams if it comes to that than he is his readiness to take over for Joey Porter as a starting outside linebacker.

"That may sound conceited to some people, but I feel like with the opportunities that I've had I've played well enough that there wasn't a huge drop-off, or any drop-off at all," Harrison said.

There have been eight such opportunities for Harrison to start for either Porter or Clark Haggans since 2004.

The Steelers' willingness to part with Porter speaks volumes about their faith in Harrison to fill the current gap at outside linebacker, at least initially.

But there was a huge drop-off in the kicking game during the first half of last season, not just on fielding kickoffs and punts but also in covering them.

It was there the Steelers learned the hard way that their core players weren't as replaceable as initially anticipated.

Former special teams captain Chidi Iwuoma was released just before the start of the season and wasn't re-signed until Dec. 4.

And former special teams demon Brett Keisel had his kicking game duties severely curtailed after being promoted to stating defensive end to replace Kimo von Oelhoffen.

Harrison felt strongly enough about Iwuoma that he spoke with former head coach Bill Cowher once a week about bringing Chidi back.

"At least once a week, yeah," Harrison said.

Cowher's response?

"Maybe a smile, a laugh, 'We're working on it, da, da, da,' " Harrison said.

Iwuoma has been re-signed for this season, presumably for a reason.

And Harrison's coach-player exchanges with Cowher's successor, Mike Tomlin, have begun to hit a little closer to home.

"I got a little hint from him that he might not have anything against starters playing special teams," Harrison said.

For the Steelers, the climb back from 8-8 can have no more appropriate starting point.

Although Iwuoma's back, the Steelers lost another former special teams stalwart this offseason when Sean Morey bolted for Arizona via free agency.

Morey, Iwuoma, Harrison, Keisel and linebacker Clint Kriewaldt had been the glue of the coverage units during the Steelers' Super Bowl season of 2005.

Tomlin wasn't around back then or last season, but he expressed an "all-hands-on-deck mentality" regarding special teams in February.

"If it requires starters being special teams players in certain situations or quite often, then we've got to be willing to do that," Tomlin said. "It's not going to be lip service. It's a legitimate phase of the game."

Should Tomlin find special teams legitimate enough to keep Harrison involved while he replaces Porter, and to re-incorporate Keisel as an integral figure in the kicking game then his point will have been made.

Until then the special teams will remain as potentially problematic as any aspect of the operation for the former Super Bowl champions.

Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at or 412-320-7923.

Pens' Malkin shooting for rookie award

Evgeni Malkin

By Karen Price
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Last season, whenever Sidney Crosby was asked about the possibility of winning the Calder Trophy for the NHL rookie of the year, he usually would tell reporters the same thing.

He wanted to finish the season the best he could and that it wasn't something he would think about until after everything was over.

Teammate Evgeni Malkin, the favorite to win the award this season, isn't quite so coy.

"If I'm going to say I don't want to win, that wouldn't be the truth," Malkin said through an interpreter. "Yeah, I would love to win. It would mean a lot, because I'm trying to do my best. I'm trying to play my best and help my team. It would be great if I won the Calder Trophy."

He most likely will.

With six games left in the regular season heading into tonight's game against the Washington Capitals, Malkin leads NHL rookies in many statistical categories.

The 20-year-old center has the most points with 80 in 72 games. The closest player behind him is the Colorado Avalanche's Paul Stastny, 21, who has 69 points and likely will be Malkin's biggest competition for the award.

Malkin also has more goals (32), assists (48), game-winning goals (six) and power-play points (16) than any other rookie and is second among rookie forwards in ice time behind the Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar, 19, by just over a minute per game.

But it isn't just the stats that lead NBC hockey analyst and former Penguins assistant coach Pierre McGuire to believe Malkin's going to win.

It's the dramatic circumstances under which Malkin left his Russian team to come to the NHL and that he's had to learn a new culture and a new language while playing and excelling on the Penguins' top two lines and top power play unit.

"Malkin has overwhelmed people with his adaptability and being able to come to a new culture, play center or wing," McGuire said. "Not only is he learning to play in a new league, he's learning a new culture, and that says a lot. I'd be shocked if Malkin didn't get rookie of the year."

One player threatening to take a few votes from Malkin is teammate Jordan Staal.

Jordan Staal (left) with Michel Ouellet

The 18-year-old native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, is one of the top young defensive forwards in the game and is chasing Malkin in goals with 29, second among rookies. He leads the NHL in shorthanded goals with seven and has a league-high 25.4 shooting percentage.

"(Staal) will get some votes, and he should," McGuire said. "Anytime you're leading the league in categories as an 18-year-old and pushing 30 goals, that's an amazing accomplishment. I really think if Malkin didn't come over this year, you'd have an amazing race between three guys - Staal, Stastny and Kopitar. But the Malkin factor's huge."

Staal said he hasn't really thought about the possibility of the Calder race coming down to him and Malkin.

"That's the last thing on my mind, really," Staal said. "But the way Geno's playing, I think it's pretty much locked up."

Coach Michel Therrien wasn't about to name his choice for the award.

"I don't have to vote," Therrien said. "Malkin, he's an elite player. Jordan Staal surprised a lot of people. Those are two great candidates."

Voting is conducted by members of the Professional Hockey Association at the end of the regular season.

Karen Price can be reached at or 412-320-7980.

Penguins have a chance at winning road record

Sidney Crosby -- On the brink of the playoffs

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Penguins' first Stanley Cup team couldn't do it. Neither could the second, for that matter. Or the club that reached the Eastern Conference final in 1996.

Fact is, only three Penguins teams have managed it since the franchise was born in 1967.

But the 2006-07 Penguins will join that select group if they can win one of their final four away games this season -- beginning with a visit to Washington at 7:08 tonight -- because that would guarantee them a winning record on the road. Under at least one accounting method, anyway.

They enter the game against the Capitals with an 18-14-5 road mark, which means they have earned 41 points away from Mellon Arena; that's exactly half of what's available from the 41-game away schedule NHL teams play.

Finishing .500 or better in away games is something only their predecessors in 1992-93 (23-15-3), 1997-98 (19-14-8) and 2000-01 (18-13-7-3) have achieved.

The Penguins' road record this season carries a hefty asterisk because the NHL did not mandate that there be a winner in every game until 2005, and more than half of their away victories in 2006-07 have come after the third period. They've won five in overtime, five more in shootouts.

They also have lost two road games in overtime and three in shootouts.

Given that 17 of the NHL's 30 teams are above .500 on the road at the moment, having three points in play when a game goes into overtime obviously has had a profound impact on away records.

But regardless of how one crunches the numbers -- some observers regard an overtime loss as just another defeat, while others see it as the equivalent of a tie under the former system -- the Penguins' ability to compete on the road has been a major component of their success this season.

If they are able to win the Atlantic Division, or even to finish fourth in the Eastern Conference and secure home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, the points they've picked up on the road might be the difference.

Never mind that the players struggle when asked to cite reasons for their success in away games.

"We've just had an overall good year," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "And when that happens, you're automatically pretty good on the road."

Well, not quite automatically. When the Penguins won their first division championship in 1991 -- a few months before earning their first Cup -- they went 16-21-3 on the road.

A year later, when they picked up Cup No. 2, their away record was 18-19-3.

Both of those clubs were outscored on the road, something this year's team has a chance to avoid. To date, the Penguins have gotten 126 goals in away games and allowed 130.

That gap would be smaller, or non-existent, if the Penguins killed penalties as effectively on the road as they do at Mellon Arena.

Their home-ice penalty killing ranks seventh in the league, with a success rate of 87.2 percent; on the road, they are 30th, and their kill rate plunges to 75.5 percent.

The difference is obvious. The reasons aren't, because personnel and strategy are the same in both places.

"There's no explanation," penalty-killer Maxime Talbot said.

Actually, the game tonight might indicate how the Penguins would fare while short-handed in a neutral-site game, because there always is a large, loud contingent of their fans in the Verizon Center. Some drive from Western Pennsylvania, others are transplants.

"They make the big trek to Washington, and we have tons of fans there," Whitney said. "It's exciting to know that if we score, it's not going to be too silent."

Coach Michel Therrien has the Penguins winning on the road.

Then again, recent history suggests the Capitals might give their fans reason to make some noise early tonight, because Washington has outscored its opponents, 8-1, during the first period of its past six games.

The Penguins want to avoid having the Capitals grab a lead. When facing a team that will be sitting out the playoffs, the idea is to get in front quickly and stay there.

"Don't give them any reason [to believe they can win]," coach Michel Therrien said.

The same concept will apply when the Penguins visit Boston Thursday and perhaps when they're in Toronto Saturday, if the Maple Leafs stumble in the next few days.

"We'll see how the next three games go," Talbot said. "We definitely want to win the three of them."

And this season, the Penguins have good reason to believe that they can.

(Dave Molinari can be reached at

Second opinion soothes Sanchez

Original diagnosis of mild knee sprain upheld

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Freddy Sanchez got the answers he wanted, in more ways than one.

The Pirates' second baseman flew to Birmingham, Ala., to see Dr. James Andrews, the noted orthopedist, for a second opinion on his sprained right knee. And the MRI taken yesterday morning confirmed the team's diagnosis of a Grade 1 sprain -- the least severe -- of the medial collateral ligament.

Nothing more than a day-to-day annoyance.

It was, as manager Jim Tracy put it, "Great news for Freddy."

Sanchez was unavailable for comment, but his agent, Paul Cobbe, shared the sentiment.

"All that Freddy was looking for was to take that one extra step to be sure," Cobbe said. "That's all this was about."

It remains likely Sanchez will open the season on the 15-day disabled list, which, a team official confirmed yesterday, would mean he could rejoin the lineup for the fifth game of the season, April 7 in Cincinnati. That would be under the condition that he does not appear in any of the five remaining Grapefruit League games.

The immediate plan is to have Sanchez resume as much activity as he believes he can handle, possibly as soon as this morning at Pirate City. He will appear in minor-league games and bat to lead off each inning. He will run the bases, too, if the knee allows.

He might not field, though. Sanchez's chief complaint about the knee has been pain when he tries to move to his left from a defensive stance.

"It's a go-as-he-feels scenario," Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield said. "The better he feels, the quicker he'll be out there."

The team has discussed fitting Sanchez with a knee brace, Littlefield said, but not to the point of a firm commitment.

Sanchez had said Sunday he was becoming "frustrated" by the knee, which was injured while turning a double play March 6. Because of that, he informed the team he was exercising his right to a second opinion, as guaranteed by Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement.

"The player has that right, and we support it," Littlefield said. "In talking to Freddy, it's natural that he's frustrated. He's a competitive guy, and he wants to get out there."

Littlefield reiterated that the Pirates will not move Sanchez from second to third, where he spent most of last season, to lessen the risk of injury.

The news was equally bright for reliever John Grabow, who was told he will make his first bullpen session Thursday.

Grabow, out since March 11 because of what yesterday were described by one source as "chips" in his left elbow, still is likely to start the season on the disabled list. But throwing soon will heighten his chances of a quick return.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Sanchez likely to miss first two series

Disabled list looms for ailing batting champ, Grabow

Monday, March 26, 2007

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates likely will not have Freddy Sanchez for the season's first two series, and they almost surely will be without John Grabow for the same span or longer.

Sanchez, the National League batting champion, said yesterday he was becoming "frustrated" by a sprained right knee that resulted from a second-base collision March 6. He took at-bats in a minor-league game March 20 but has not faced live pitching since then.

His timetable for doing so again?

"There is no timetable," Sanchez replied.

Moreover, Sanchez's work in the field has been limited to turning double plays from a stationary stance, and his baserunning has been home-to-first only, nothing that requires a turn.

General manager Dave Littlefield said the Pirates "would consider" placing Sanchez and Grabow -- out with an ailing left elbow -- on the 15-day disabled list if there is no improvement soon. The team probably would backdate the listing, he added, so the players can return as soon as possible.

Major League Baseball rules allow teams to backdate a maximum seven days of spring training. In this case, because of an off day Sunday and another April 5, Sanchez and Grabow would miss all of the Pirates' season-opening road trip -- three games each in Houston and Cincinnati -- but be eligible to return for the home opener April 9.

Neither has given up on starting the season on time.

Sanchez was back at Pirate City yesterday taking more cuts in the batting cage. But, as he acknowledged, swinging is not the concern. He continues to feel pain on the inside of his knee when moving to his left out of a defensive stance, and he still does not feel strong enough to run.

Even so ...

"I'm hoping," he said.

Manager Jim Tracy said the Pirates would need to be convinced not only that Sanchez's knee is fine, but also that it no longer is on his mind.

"With the type of player Freddy is, with his style, he needs to be able to go all-out," Tracy said.

Grabow yesterday described marked improvement in the elbow that has kept him from pitching since March 11.

"It's much, much better," he said.

Still, there remains no date for Grabow to make his first bullpen session, which will provide the most telling measure. He would need to pitch in a game or two in spring training to show he is ready for Houston, and only six games remain.

"With a hitter, we can send him to minor-league camp and get him 10 at-bats a day," Littlefield said. "With a pitcher, it's different because we can't get him 10 innings."

If Sanchez is out, the Pirates will replace him with Jose Castillo at second base. Castillo made his seventh start at second yesterday in the 12-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays yesterday at McKechnie Field.

Sanchez's No. 3 spot in the batting order probably would go to Jason Bay, who had been expected to hit fifth behind Adam LaRoche. But it also is possible that Xavier Nady could hit third, as he did yesterday, and LaRoche and Bay would stay put.

The Pirates apparently have decided that Grabow's place in the bullpen would go to Juan Perez, though that will not be announced until Grabow is placed on the disabled list.

Perez, a 28-year-old waiver claim from the New York Mets in August, has not allowed an earned run in eight spring appearances while striking out nine and walking none. He has appeared dominant at times, with a fastball touching 95 mph and a biting slider.

Asked if Perez has surprised him this spring, Tracy replied, "Yes, he has. He was erratic at times last year, but we haven't seen that here. He's making hitters look uncomfortable."


(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at )

Repairs, paint, new video screen to greet fans at PNC Park

Old concrete is removed near the left field entrance of PNC Park next to the statue of Willie Stargell.

Monday, March 26, 2007

By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Whether it's a new high-definition screen for fans or some fresh paint and new chairs for the press, PNC Park is sprucing up for the home opener April 9.

The city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority has approved $294,780 in spending from a capital reserve fund set up as part of the PNC Park's construction to repair concrete outside the ballpark, paint steps inside, and make improvements to the press box.

But for fans, the biggest change will be on the scoreboard.

For the third time since the park opened in 2001, the Pirates are replacing the giant video display board on their main scoreboard, this time to take advantage of the ever-changing technology.

With the new display board, the Pirates will have the option of enlarging the screen size for replays and other presentations or breaking it into windows to show lineups, statistics, out-of-town game information, video clips, animation, and other features.

"It will give us the opportunity to provide more information, more statistical information that people like," said Patty Paytas, vice president of communications for the Pirates.

The new screen also will be high-definition ready, providing a resolution 160 percent greater than before. It was developed by Daktronics, the firm that made the existing board.

Team officials turned to Daktronics two years ago after the ballpark's original screen, purchased as part of a $1.89 million contract with Sony Electronics, suffered moisture damage and needed to be replaced.

Ms. Paytas said there were no such problems with the existing board.

"The product has performed beautifully. We're very happy with it. This is just to go ahead and enhance it," she said.

The existing video display board will be used to create another feature bound to capture fans' attention this season. That will be a new 3-foot high LED display that will run foul pole to foul pole along PNC Park's upper deck.

Daktronics said it would be one of the largest ribbon displays in professional baseball.

It will provide fans with up-to-date in-game information and player and team statistics as well as pitch counts, a feature that appears to be in great demand among fans attending games at PNC Park.

"It's something that people really like," Ms. Paytas said. "It's a very popular statistic right now."

She would not disclose the cost of the new video display board or the LED display, both of which are being paid for by the team.

The new video displays likely will be the most noticeable improvement but they will not be the only ones.

Outside the ballpark, workers will be repairing and replacing concrete on sidewalks, including large decorative diamond-shaped inlays.

Inside, they will be repainting the yellow stripes on steps throughout the park. The press box will get a fresh coat of paint, new carpet and new chairs.

Ms. Paytas classified the improvements as normal maintenance.

"We go through this every winter. Obviously, the winter does things. It's just the normal wear and tear."

She noted that PNC Park is considered one of the best ballparks in the country and "every year we work very hard to maintain it that way. Every year we try to enhance the fans' experience, and we think the new video displays will do that."

The $294,780 from the sports authority capital reserve fund will cover the cost of the concrete repairs, the painting of the steps, and the painting and the carpet replacement in the press box. The Pirates will pay to replace the chairs in the press area.

Money for the capital reserve fund comes from a ticket surcharge. Each year, $650,000 is deposited into the account. There's now $5 million to $6 million available, authority Executive Director Mary Conturo said.

The Pirates' lease spells out what can be funded through the account. Ms. Conturo said the work qualifies.


(Mark Belko can be reached at or 412-263-1262. )

Penguins blow past Bruins in 5-0 shutout

Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save against the Bruins yesterday at Mellon Arena.

Penguins take advantage of a rare easy game in late March for a victory that pushes the team into a first-place tie in the division

Monday, March 26, 2007

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Penguins have been learning what hockey at this time of year is all about.

What it's like to fight for every square centimeter of open ice. To compete for loose pucks like an angry badger. To work so hard along the boards that the ads rub off on your uniform.
That's standard-issue stuff in late March.

Occasionally, though, there is a game in which the outcome does not teeter on every shift. When the stress level is considerably lower than usual, if only because the stakes are for at least one of the teams.

A game like the Penguins' 5-0 victory against Boston at Mellon Arena yesterday.

"It was a fun game to play," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "It wasn't too tight."

That was particularly true after the Penguins scored on four of their first 10 shots, at which point the game became only slightly more intense than a quilting bee.

For a team like the Bruins, whose elimination from playoff contention is nothing more than a mathematical formality at this point, falling behind by four on the road is ample reason to shift one's focus to what kind of food will be served on the flight home.

And so it was that, after the Penguins ran their lead to 4-0 little more than a minute into the second period, the rest of the afternoon was not so much a game as a dress rehearsal for the half-dozen that remain.

And the Penguins, to their credit, continued to perform efficiently long after the outcome was decided.

"We know they're out of it," right winger Mark Recchi said, "and we were trying to make sure we kept doing the right things."

The Penguins (43-23-10) did enough of those to climb into a tie with New Jersey for first place in the Atlantic Division, although the Devils have a game in hand. They also moved to within two points of Ottawa, which is fourth in the Eastern Conference.

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 shots to record his fifth shutout of the season and Crosby snapped a three-game scoring drought with two goals and an assist. That gives him a 111-104 lead over San Jose center Joe Thornton in the NHL points race.

"He was on fire," Bruins coach Dave Lewis said. "Sidney's been an amazing player to watch."

Crosby got his first goal when he knocked a Sergei Gonchar rebound out of the air and past Bruins goalie Tim Thomas during a power play at 16:14 of the first period, his second at 4:29 of the third, off an inadvertent set-up by linemate Colby Armstrong.

Armstrong, who was on the right side, had a shot at an open net, but sent the puck through the crease. When it reached the other side, Crosby was waiting and flipped a backhander past Joey MacDonald, who had replaced Thomas after the first period.

"I got a little too much stick on it," Armstrong said. "But Sid was obviously in the right spot at the right time."

Armstrong acknowledged that only after putting forth a vigorous defense of his work during that sequence, when he vowed his primary objective was to pad Crosby's personal totals.

"I had to get him involved in the play," Armstrong said, smiling. "I felt bad for him."

Crosby's second goal was the only one the Penguins got at even strength. Their first three came during power plays in the opening period, as Gary Roberts moved into Recchi's spot on the No. 1 unit, and Ryan Malone got the other while the Penguins were short-handed at 1:09 of the second.

"The [power-play] execution was there," coach Michel Therrien said. "We tried a different combination, and it worked."

The power play, which scored on its first three chances, was impressive, but so was the penalty-killing. It not only denied the Bruins on five tries with the extra man, but allowed the Penguins to get away with being short-handed three times during the first half of the opening period.
"That's not the start you're looking for, to take so many penalties," Therrien said.

The Penguins survived that stretch, though -- "Our penalty-killers were great early," Roberts said -- and Evgeni Malkin gave them the only goal they needed when he pounded a slap shot past Thomas during a 4-on-3 power play at 11:54 of the first.

The goals Crosby (two), Roberts and Malone contributed added to their margin of victory and, in the process, helped to reaffirm that the Penguins are a legitimate threat to win the Atlantic.
"We're right there," Crosby said. "We'll just keep going and see what happens."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at )