Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Analysis: So much about 2009 sounds the same

Huntington has many issues for offseason, and trades could be key

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pittsburgh Pirates' Jack Wilson hands his hat to a fan after the Pirates' 6-2 loss to the Houston Astros in the final home game of the baseball season in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008.

Neal Huntington does not need one of his techie assistants to do the math: The roster remaining after the Pirates' general manager executed the Jason Bay/Xavier Nady trades in July went 17-37, a .315 winning percentage that projects to 51-111 over a full season.

And that is only the beginning of the reasons why the forecast for the team's 2009 fortunes, based on current circumstances, appear thoroughly dismal:

• The roster could face further depletion if one or both of middle infielders Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez gets traded, as seems eminently possible.

• Two of the newcomers in those trades, projected as everyday players, might be non-factors: Outfielder Brandon Moss will have major knee surgery later this week, and third baseman Andy LaRoche has shown not the faintest sign that he is capable -- or deserving -- of the starting job.

• The front office has no plan to address shortcomings with significant spending. There are free-agent targets, but they come without an internal obligation to fill them up to the payroll budget limit which, at roughly $55 million, again will one of the smallest in Major League Baseball.

• Although the Milwaukee Brewers might take a step backward to free-agency, there is no cause to believe the National League Central Division will get weaker. Quite the contrary, actually.

• Oh, and should the Pirates again lose 82 or more, they are sure to draw national attention for breaking the professional sports record with a 17th consecutive losing season, adding to the embarrassment for the team and its dwindling fan base.

And make no mistake: The only year that matters to the overwhelming majority of that base is 2009, no matter how much the team stresses the future beyond it.

Pittsburgh Pirates' Nate McLouth, right, pats teammate Freddy Sanchez on the helmet after the two scored on a double by Ryan Doumit in the first inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008.

For Huntington, this past season was his first, but that apparently does not mean he is numb to the sentiment.

"I can definitely understand the concern," Huntington said. "Obviously, August was a very rough month for this group. We played all first- and second-place teams, and we came away with not a very good record."

That was 7-21.

"But I think, going forward, that our pitching will be better. We have young players establishing themselves and getting into their routines. We're going to show up every day. Our staff is going to work hard. Our players are going to work hard. They're going to prepare. They're going to go about their business the right way. And we're going to compete to win every single night."

Competing to win and actually doing so can be cosmically separated concepts, of course, as the 2008 Pirates just illustrated: They competed as fiercely as any recent edition before the trades stripped down their offense -- and much of their life -- but still wound up with a backward step in the standings thanks to some of the worst pitching in franchise history.

So, when addressing the long list of concerns, that seems a good place to start ...

Starting pitchers

The way management is stating it, the depth chart currently consists of Paul Maholm, a surefire -- and richly deserved -- opening-day starter April 6, 2009 in St. Louis.

Beyond that is unknown.

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Ian Snell throws against the Houston Astros in the first inning of the baseball game in Pittsburgh, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008.

Unlike last offseason, when Huntington made what might have been a rookie mistake in overestimating his rotation -- how else to explain declaring all five spots on a losing team filled before the snow had melted? -- next spring should be highlighted by as many as eight other pitchers battling for the four openings: Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Karstens, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf, Phil Dumatrait and longer shots Jimmy Barthmaier, Jason Davis and Daniel McCutchen.

And the mix could change: There was some quiet dissatisfaction with Snell, and the Pirates can be expected to entertain trade offers. They also will explore free agency for at least one firm addition, though not an expensive one.

The Pirates also will make changes to their instruction, obviously, after the firing of pitching coach Jeff Andrews yesterday.

"We need pitchers who are aggressive and throw strikes," Huntington said. "We need to change our mindset as a staff."


Here again, the battle is mostly wide open, only Matt Capps and John Grabow being informed by Huntington that they are locks.

The Pirates will pursue a setup man through free agency, probably right-handed, which could reduce Tyler Yates' role and workload after a season in which he clearly wore down.

Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Matt Capps, left celebrates the Pirates' win with catcher Ryan Doumit after getting a save in the ninth inning of the baseball game against the Houston Astros in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008. The Pirates won 6-4.

Yates and Sean Burnett are excellent bets to return. Presuming the free-agent addition, that would leave two real openings with one of those being for a long man.

Denny Bautista's late-season control issues might have shaken management's confidence to the point he is not tendered an arbitration contract, especially with Jesse Chavez showing superior stuff -- if not execution -- in September. T.J. Beam, whose rights are retained, will be in the mix, possibly for the long role. And it is highly likely that one of the losers in the starting competition will be considered for it, too.


That will be Ryan Doumit, who drew the intense respect of manager John Russell this past season not only for his .318 average and 15 home runs but also for his revitalized work ethic.

But Doumit is no finished product: Although his receiving improved after being a glaring weakness, his game-calling with the pitching staff and handling of baserunners has to improve by just as much to achieve average status defensively.

The backup is unknown.

Raul Chavez fit the role well, especially on defense, but he will be 36, and management is considering other options. One will be Robinzon Diaz, who came in the Jose Bautista trade and has a reputation for good contact at the plate, as well as good defense. Another, though seemingly distant, is Ronny Paulino, who fell out of favor with Russell and pretty much everyone in authority after a lackluster spring and start to his season.

That makes a trade of Paulino likely. He probably would have been dealt at the past deadline -- the Florida Marlins were plenty interested -- except that his ankle was hurt.


Adam LaRoche could end up with a $2 million raise above his $5 million salary from this past season, though the Pirates might have some leverage through the arbitration process because of LaRoche's maddening tendency to remain dormant until June.

At any rate, he will return, largely because there is so little power left in the way of the Bay/Nady trades.

"The biggest hole, as you look at us on paper, is power," Huntington said.

Sanchez is a good bet to return, partly because there are no adequate replacements and partly because giving up Wilson and Sanchez would bring too great a blow. But his salary rises to $6.1 million, and his troubled first half this season did not provide much value. Unlike last year, when potential suitors at the Winter Meetings were rebuffed in asking about Sanchez, the phone this time will be answered.

Pittsburgh Pirates' Freddy Sanchez breaks his bat as he fouls off a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008, in Milwaukee.

Wilson probably will go.

His pay jumps to $7.25 million, which would be highest on the team, and he did not make a positive first impression on new management by missing half of this season to a strained calf and broken finger. In fact, seeing all the grossly inadequate defensive play of those who replaced Wilson might have exacerbated their frustration at his absence.

The fan base made clear its feelings about Wilson last week at PNC Park by giving him a thunderous standing ovation for what likely was his final at-bat in Pittsburgh, but team president Frank Coonelly and Huntington have repeated time and again that they will not make moves based on popularity. The Bay/Nady trades duly illustrated that.

"It's not in my mindset to go into this offseason looking to trade any particular player," Huntington said. "If there's a good baseball trade out there for anybody, hey, we're not good enough to have untouchables."

It seems inconceivable that someone who performed as poorly as Andy LaRoche could be a lock at third base, so management probably will, at the least, go through some motions to make it seem as if there is competition for the job. In reality, there will be none. Prospect Neil Walker is not ready, as his dismal .280 on-base percentage at Class AAA Indianapolis showed. And, maybe most important, LaRoche's pedigree is that of an elite prospect, and the Pirates, having invested so much to acquire him, are not about to give up.

From the bench standpoint, Doug Mientkiewicz probably will not be brought back, despite Huntington's statement over the weekend that the team will approach him about a new contract. Mientkiewicz, a fiery competitor who tells it like it is in all situations, seemed a poor match for the post-trade Pirates, and his work as a super-utility player should get him better offers this winter than last.

Veterans Chris Gomez and Luis Rivas also probably will not be brought back because the Pirates will seek cheaper options. Gomez made $1 million, Rivas $650,000.

That means the Pirates will need not only to acquire a starting shortstop if Wilson is traded -- there are none in the system close to his pedigree, even potentially -- but also bench help. And this time, unlike last year when Gomez was signed with the understanding that he could back up at short when he clearly could not, they will need to make sure the bench help can handle the most difficult position.


The Pirates had the most productive outfield in the majors, elected to blow it up with the Bay/Nady trades and now are left with maybe the most uncertain -- possibly the least productive -- outfield in the majors heading into 2009.

Nate McLouth will be back in center, of course, after a breakout season of 26 home runs and 94 RBIs. It might be a bit much to ask for the same amount next year -- especially the freakish RBI total from the top of the order -- but he displayed enough consistency this summer that confidence is merited.

Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Nyjer Morgan, left, nearly collides with right fielder Steve Pearce (51) while catching ball hit by Milwaukee Brewers' J.J. Hardy during the seventh inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008, in Milwaukee. The Brewers won 4-2.

The road map from here had Moss manning right field, where he might blossom into a power hitter in the Nady mold, and top prospect Andrew McCutchen making it to Pittsburgh at some point in 2009 either to take over in center or go to a corner spot.

The McCutchen scenario remains viable, especially if he shows more power with Indianapolis, but Moss' status leaves the rest out of whack. Nyjer Morgan was a dynamic offensive figure after his Aug. 19 recall, batting .347 mostly at leadoff and scoring 20 runs. He could start out in left, maybe even entrench himself in some form. But a hole remains glaring, and it might be there that Huntington seeks to put that power he is seeking through free agency.

The team genuinely wants to have Jason Michaels back as the fourth or fifth outfielder, and Michaels feels likewise.

"We'd like to keep the veteran leadership that Jason and Doug provided, if not from them then from someone else," Huntington said. "We realize that it's not productive to run an all-young roster out there."

Young roster.

Playing hard.

Competing to win.

Going about one's business.

Pittsburgh Pirates' Adam LaRoche is greeted in the dugout after hitting a fifth-inning grand slam off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley in a baseball game in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008.

Put it all together, and it sounds not much different than the previews for pretty much every season since 1993. But no one involved is apologizing, steadfastly maintaining that the correct path toward build a legitimate contender is to stockpile a wealth of young talent.

"We're building," Huntington said. "There are teams that have had surprising, successful runs with similar talent to what we feel we'll be putting on the field. Does that mean it's going to happen? We believe that, through hard work and some potential moves for us this offseason if they're there, and if we have some guys who step forward like Nate, Paul and Ryan, we could make things very interesting next year."

If not, the Pirates will make history.

"The bottom line is that we want to put a championship-caliber organization in place," Huntington said to that topic. "We're not striving to get to 82 wins. As a part of the process? As a step? Absolutely. But not the end goal. My focus is to get the best 25 players in Pittsburgh, sooner rather than later, that will help us get to the playoffs."

In this particular baseball setting, then, the question might be this: How soon is now?

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.
First published on September 30, 2008 at 12:02 am

Steelers offense a work in progress

By John Harris
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 29: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers escapes the tackle of Terrell Suggs #55 of the Baltimore Ravens on September 29, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 23-20. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Why does it seem like the Steelers' new-look offense is always a work in progress?

A big run here. A key interception there.

A first down here. A false start there.

Where's the consistency? Where's the rhythm?

Most of all, where are the points?

Give me the Steelers' old offense any day.

Instead of three-receiver sets, how about three extra blockers to cover Ben Roethlisberger's blind side, front side and backside?

The Steelers went eight consecutive quarters - the equivalent of two games - without a touchdown before Roethlisberger's 38-yard scoring toss to Santonio Holmes in the third quarter of Monday night's game against the Baltimore Ravens.

In spite of their continued offensive struggles, the Steelers hung around long enough to give their offense a chance to win a game in overtime they couldn't afford to lose.

Steelers 23, Ravens 20.

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 29: Santonio Holmes #10 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a third quarter touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens with Ben Roethlisberger #7 on September 29, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 23-20. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Fourteen quick third-quarter points wiped out a 10-point deficit and gave the Steelers a 17-13 lead. However, a surprisingly wobbly defense at key points in the game needed heroics from a once-struggling Roethlisberger to send the contest into overtime.

With an embarrassing loss at Philadelphia in the rear-view mirror and Sunday night's game at Jacksonville looming, the Steelers still came out flat against Baltimore.

The Ravens actually had control of the game - and a 10-point lead - until the Steelers' finally offense awoke from its season-long hibernation.

Roethlisberger's quick strike to Holmes was not only Holmes' first touchdown catch of the season, it was Roethlisberger's first touchdown pass since the opener.

If ever there was a moment that the Steelers needed Roethlisberger to lead the offense out of the darkness, this was it.

Booed in the first half, Roethlisberger heard cheers following the touchdown pass to Holmes, who cut across the middle and sidestepped potential tacklers in a spectacular highlight-film sequence.

Given a second chance, along with a chance to catch its collective breath, the Steelers defense created some more offense.

Right outside linebacker James Harrison, as annoying as a pebble in a shoe to the Ravens, sacked rookie quarterback Joe Flacco from behind, forcing a fumble.

Left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley recovered the fumble and stumbled his way into the end zone for the go-ahead score.

Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Jeff Reed, right, kicks the game-winning field goal out of the hold by Mitch Berger in overtime against the Baltimore Ravens in an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008. The Steelers won 23-20.

Last year, the Steelers offense put constant pressure on the defense with inconsistency play. Time after time, the defense, ranked No. 1 in the NFL, bailed out the offense.

In a classic case of role reversal, the Steelers defense yielded a fourth-quarter touchdown making the score 20-20 after Roethisberger guided the offense to a Jeff Reed field goal following a 49-yard bomb to Hines Ward.

The question was did Roethlisberger have any magic left in his right arm to pull a vicrtory out of thin air? They pay Big Ben the big bucks for a reason, and he delivered as needed.

John Harris is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

Woodley, Harrison seal the deal

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

The Steelers' LaMarr Woodley picks up fumble and scores.

The record must show that in this particular edition of Monday Night Into Tuesday Morning Football, Jeff Reed ended it mercifully, which means before anybody got killed.

All you need to know might be that Reed ended it at a quarter past midnight with a 46-yard field goal that beat Baltimore and hoisted the Steelers back to the top of the AFC North, but the larger perspective must include what was essentially just another long night of gratuitous violence on the North Shore.

Steelers-Ravens prime time was four seconds old when somebody left on a cart. That was reliable special teams agent Andre Frazier, who injured his spine covering the opening kickoff that Lawrence Timmons punctuated with the kind of bone-rattling tackle that would typify the totality of these 66 NFL minutes.

Before LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison made just enough dominating defensive plays to overcome a still-skittish Steelers offense, Rashard Mendenhall and Kendall Simmons sustained season-ending injuries. Carey Davis, the backup to the backup running back, wound up on crutches, and starting running back Willis McGahee went doubled over to the sideline among several staggered Ravens.

"It was brutal out there," said Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, "a lot of injuries, a lot of injury time outs. We're always trying to create a turnover, but tonight especially, especially the way the offense was struggling. We needed something big just to get some field position."

The open week couldn't come at a better time for these Steelers; unfortunately, this isn't it.

No, this is instead a desperately short week with Jacksonville lurking at its far end in still another prime time appointment in which the Steelers will foist their version of offense on an unsuspecting nation.

Can the Steelers become the first prime-time show to be cancelled this fall?

I mean if not due to its weak narrative, just for the shrinking cast of starters.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

James Farrior takes down Ravens Le'Ron McClain.

Hines Ward spend part of the week explaining that the offense's startling failure last week in Philadelphia was not the physical mismatch the Eagles had made it appear, but rather a breakdown in communication.

But last night, Roethlisberger was communicating with perfect, high-decibel clarity. He way saying, "AAAAAAHHHHH!"

That's the general auditory response of a human dancing in traffic, scrambling for his life, wondering if the best option regarding the football is to whip it, eat it or roll over and wait for the nightmare to end.

All that saved the Steelers in this increasingly vicious AFC North tangle with the was that the relentless pressure on Roethlisberger was matched by their own front seven, which tortured a third-quarter lead away from rookie Joe Flacco by attacking him from every angle available, including from behind.

That's where Harrison arrived from, completing a typically menacing loop just as the moment Flacco was winding up for something hard down the middle. The Harrison collision knocked the ball free and off the leg of Woodley, approaching from the front, of all directions.

The next handful of seconds constituted the single most necessary, most combustible element in the curious formula that somehow put the Steelers back in charge of the AFC North: a score from someone not associated with Bruce Arians' embattled offense.

Woodley watched the football roll down his left leg, kicked it toward the open lawn at the open end of Heinz Field, flopped on it, rolled with it, got to his feet and turned into a touchdown.

"Give James all the credit on that one," said Woodley, who with Harrison accounted for four of the Steelers' five sacks. "I mean that guy works so hard, every play; it's that kind of hustle that eventually breaks a big play. He gave us the opportunity we needed right there."

But it was Woodley whose constant pressure turned things inalterably the Steelers' way in the overtime. Woodley forced Ravens running back Le'Ron McClain into a desperate chop block on the first possession of sudden death. The flag put the Ravens back at their 8. One play later, Timmons, with the evening's fifth Pittsburgh sack, gave the Steelers only offensive opportunity they'd need in the overtime. Busting through on Flacco on third-and-10 from the 15, last year's top draft pick showed again he's more than ready to play like it.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Hines Ward runs to set up a touchdown against the Ravens in the fourth quarter.

"It's always our mentality that we have to come up with some big plays on defense," said Bryant McFadden, who played a third consecutive superb game at the left corner. "We're always pressing for a sack or a turnover or a score. That's what made Woodley's the big play. We got all those things on one play."

What they got as well is a better sense of what it's going to take to win this division. The Ravens are a much more painful proposition that they might have seemed a few weeks back, and the Steelers grow more depleted with every quarter.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on September 30, 2008 at 2:34 am

Stars step up and save the game for Steelers

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Santonio Holmes scampers past the Ravens defense and scores in the 3rd quarter.

Steelers linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley surely will get AFC defensive player of the week consideration for their marvelous play in the 23-20 overtime win against the Baltimore Ravens last night. It almost seemed unfair to turn them loose on Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. They combined for 18 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries and 2 forced Flacco fumbles. As a topper, Woodley picked up the fumble caused by Harrison and ran it 7 yards for a touchdown that put the Steelers ahead late in the third quarter.

Marvelous, indeed.

But Harrison and Woodley weren't the brightest Steelers stars on this fascinating Monday night-turned-Tuesday morning at Heinz Field. Those would be wide receiver Santonio Holmes and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Holmes for making the spectacular play that saved the game when all appeared lost for the home team.

Roethlisberger for doing what the truly great ones do, hanging in on a bad night and fairly willing his team to victory.

"We'll take it no matter how ugly it is," Big Ben said when the 31/2 hours of brutality finally ended. "[A] 3-1 [record] sounds a lot better than 2-2."

Who saw this win coming?

You would have bet the mortgage that the Steelers wouldn't come back from ...


That's a bad choice of words these days.

You would have bet just about anything that the Steelers wouldn't climb out of a 13-3 hole late in the third quarter. To say Roethlisberger and his offense were lame to that point would be generous. Roethlisberger threw a terrible interception -- to 345-pound defensive end Haloti Ngata, of all people -- when the ball slipped out of his hand in the first quarter, a play that seemed to swing the game the Ravens' way. The next four Steelers' possessions ended in punts. They went from the seven-minute mark of the first quarter to the nine-minute mark of the third quarter without so much as a first down.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger looks to throw against the Ravens in the first quarter Monday night.

Remember, this was the same Steelers' offense that didn't score a touchdown in a 15-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend and was lucky to get one in a 10-6 win in Cleveland the weekend before.

Lame, indeed.

"I was probably more vocal at halftime than I've ever been," Roethlisberger said. "We were terrible in that first half ...

"I was tired of being booed and tired of being embarrassed on offense. I told our guys there was no need for it. I'm proud of the way they bounced back in the second half."

What made that more impressive was that it came against the NFL's No. 1 defense. Maybe the Ravens didn't brutalize Roethlisberger the way the Eagles did, but they looked awfully impenetrable.

Roethlisberger lobbied for coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to try the no-huddle on the Steelers' pivotal third-quarter drive. They obliged. "We get a rhythm going," Roethlisberger said. "I like it because it's going off what I see, not necessarily what the coaches see."

Holmes, meanwhile, lobbied for the ball.

"I told our guys walking out at halftime that I was going to make the play to spark us. 'I'll be the difference-maker,' " he said. "I told the coaches, 'I'm ready to make a play.' "

Say this about Holmes: He's a man of his word.

On a third-and-4 play from the Baltimore 38, Roethlisberger, under tremendous pressure again, stepped up in the pocket and somehow found Holmes in the middle of the field. Cornerback Fabian Washington made a diving try to break up the pass -- instead of making the tackle for a short gain -- and paid a terrible price when he missed. Defensive back Chris McAlister and All-Pro safety Ed Reed had shots at Holmes, but he eluded them.

The next thing you knew, the Steelers were very much alive.

Down 13-10, but very much alive, thanks to that improbable 38-yard touchdown.

"Sometimes," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said, "all it takes is one play."

Harrison and Woodley took over from there with Harrison sacking Flacco on the next play and Woodley picking up the loose ball for his touchdown and a 17-13 lead.

Two touchdowns in 15 seconds had the big stadium rocking.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Steelers kicker Jeff Reed celebrates after kicking a field goal in the first quarter.

It would rock again in overtime when Roethlisberger made two more plays against that proud Baltimore defense. He stepped up to avoid the pressure and found running back Mewelde Moore for 24 yards on third-and-8, then stood tall in the pocket to find Moore again for 7 yards to get kicker Jeff Reed just close enough for his 46-yard winning field goal.

"I wasn't sure what to do there -- run or not," Roethlisberger said of that second pass to Moore, an unlikely hero who was in the game only because of injuries to starter Rashard Mendenhall and backup Carey Davis.

"But I knew we needed a chunk of yards on that play. Not a lot, just a chunk."

It was some finish.

But it wouldn't have been possible if not for Holmes' big-play heroics against a star-studded secondary and Roethlisberger's persistence in the face of that ferocious Ravens' pass rush.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on September 30, 2008 at 1:01 am

Monday, September 29, 2008

LaRoche, Pearce blast Pirates to finale win

Back-to-back home runs sink Padres, 6-1, close year at 67-95

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, September 29, 2008

SAN DIEGO -- The 2008 season most assuredly did not end yesterday for the Pirates when back-to-back blasts by Adam LaRoche and Steve Pearce bested the San Diego Padres, 6-1, at Petco Park, even if the schedule suggests as much.

Don Boomer/Associated Press

Padres catcher Nick Hundley looks down as Pirates' Andy LaRoche, left, congratulates teammate Steve Pearce after Pearce hit a home run yesterday in the fourth inning.

It actually ended, in so many ways, on that fateful July 31 when general manager Neal Huntington hastily summoned the players at PNC Park for a meeting to inform them that Jason Bay was traded just before Major League Baseball's deadline. One minute, Bay was packing his bag to join teammates on the bus and, the next, he was gone.

So was the season.

Maybe next season, too.

The team was 50-58 at the break and went 17-37 the rest of the way, a .315 winning percentage that had the feel of an ominous portend for 2009.

"We took a step back. A few steps back," the always candid LaRoche said after his 25th home run, a prodigious stroke that was the fourth-longest in Petco history. "But, hopefully, we did it with the idea of stepping forward."

Those steps back, he clarified, reflected not only the loss of Bay and Xavier Nady from what had been a richly competitive lineup, but also intangibles.

"There's no question the confidence of the team went down. Everybody knows that. Neal knows that. That's how it is when you lose a couple guys you're used to leaning on. It takes a while to get that back. The important part is that guys in here believe in what Neal's doing, what the guy's about. We've bought in. We trust him to give us the team we need."

LaRoche cited the seemingly cyclical string of awful pitching promoted from Class AAA Indianapolis and even Class AA Altoona.

"Whether it was going to be this way or spending a lot of money, it needed to happen. We were looking to the minors for help, and there was nothing for us. It was a revolving door. Everybody saw that. And Neal was in a hurry to get that changed."

LaRoche's view should not be interpreted, however, as a sign that players were fine with losing Bay and Nady at the time. They definitely were not, especially in the case of Bay, many feeling management would have done better to simply spend more to address the pitching. Some still are privately upset.

And it cannot be coincidence -- nor can it blamed wholly on the trade returns performing mostly poorly -- that so much of the fight these Pirates displayed for the first four months suddenly was gone.

John Russell acknowledged it was among his greatest challenges in his first year as manager to react to that 7-21 August.

"I didn't know, really, at the time how big a change it was going to be," Russell said. "But, as we went through that tough month, I did realize it."

He stressed that he meant the mood, as opposed to the disappointing performances of Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss, the trade arrivals who took the everyday spots of Bay and Nady.

"It's not that we got bad guys in the trade. It's just that we lost some important people, not only on the field but also in the clubhouse. It was a difference in our season, no question. We had guys who were here a while, who were very successful, and the clubhouse was a great place to be. You bring young guys who aren't going to have that presence, things change."
Including more than a few players questioning whether how long they would remain.

"You have that sense of starting over," shortstop Jack Wilson, chief among the candidates to be traded this winter, said. "At that point, you saw the direction of the team, like, OK, this year's going to be what it's going to be. You saw that they were looking to the future."

The future?

Rebuilding with youth?

Sounds familiar.

"How many is this, No. 3 now?" Wilson asked, referring solely to his eight-year tenure. "As players, we don't really realize all the business stuff, and we don't have any control of it. We get paid to play a game, and we go out there and do that."

Huntington's stance has been consistent: The trades addressed a glaring organizational need for pitching.

"We'd have loved to keep Bay and Nady. In a perfect world, we would have. We weren't good enough," he said. "We didn't have the depth to build around them, plain and simple. And so, we had to take the big steps toward building a deeper, strong organization to get good enough so that we can hopefully keep the next generation of those types of players around. Is that going to be the class of Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit and Nate McLouth? We hope so. We'd love to end the cycle where we trade away our five-plus players."

Any which way it is divided, the 122nd season for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club is in the books with some abysmal numbers:

• The 67-95 record marks the 12th time in franchise history with that many losses or more. The Pirates have lost at least 94 each of the past four years.

• The last-place finish -- 30 1/2 games behind the Chicago Cubs -- was the third in four years, the eighth in these 16 consecutive losing seasons.

• The team's run total, which ranked seventh in the majors at the time of the Bay trade, ended up 19th.

• The offense generated a remarkable 26 comeback victories before the trades, eight afterward including yesterday.

• And then, of course, there was the pitching: The 5.08 ERA was third-highest in the majors, fifth-highest in franchise history. The 657 walks were second-most in the majors, most in franchise history. The starting pitchers had a stunning 33 wins, fewest in the majors, an average of one every turn through the rotation. Starters not named Paul Maholm had a total of 24 wins.

The pitching in this finale was sound, as it was most of the final two weeks.
Ross Ohlendorf sprayed a bit in throwing 40 of 98 pitches for balls and lasting just 4 2/3 innings, but he allowed one run and five hits despite -- as has been the case throughout his September callup -- not having his best stuff.

He is capable of reaching 99 mph, but he started out at 93 yesterday and was down to 89 by the time Russell pulled him in the fifth. That came after a nine-pitch walk to Adrian Gonzalez put two aboard with two out. Jesse Chavez bailed him out.

Final numbers for Ohlendorf: 0-3, 6.35 ERA in five starts.

"I need to become more efficient with my pitches next year," he said.

The Pirates were trailing, 1-0, when LaRoche led off the fourth by sizing up a slow changeup from left-hander Wade LeBlanc and obliterating it into the second deck beyond right field, becoming the first ball to reach that deck in the stadium's five years. It brought an audible gasp from the 29,191 on hand.

"Normally, I hit that type of pitch on the ground somewhere, but I stayed inside it," LaRoche said.

His longest?

"It's up there pretty good."

So was the next one.

Pearce took a strike, then lined a LeBlanc fastball into the old metal company building that juts into left field, and it was 2-1.

Trying to match LaRoche?

"No way," Pearce said. "Are you kidding?"

It was his fourth home run, three of those coming on this six-game road trip during which Brandon Moss' knee injury gave him a chance to start.

Spotless relief from Jesse Chavez, T.J. Beam, Sean Burnett, John Grabow, Tyler Yates and Matt Capps took it home. Yates was outstanding again, striking out the side in the seventh. Despite tiring in August, he was scored upon once in September and struck out nine of his final 13 batters.

Jason Michaels and LaRoche had back-to-back doubles in the ninth for three insurance runs.

Maholm will be next to take the mound, April 6, 2009, at St. Louis' Busch Stadium.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.
First published on September 29, 2008 at 12:00 am

Box score

Next year

Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 4:05 p.m., April 6, 2009, Busch Stadium.

TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7)

Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm vs. RHP Kyle Lohse.

Management's task monumental

By Bob Smizik
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, September 29, 2008

It's a good thing the Pirates have "the single-best management team in all of baseball." They're going to need it. Never in their 16-year streak of losing has the outlook for an upcoming season been so bleak. Not even when the Pirates lost 100 games in 2001 was the immediate future so depressing.

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Paul Maholm throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008, in Milwaukee.

The Pirates closed out their season yesterday with a 6-1 win against the San Diego Padres to give them a 67-95 record. But that's not the real story. The real story is this: Since the trade of Xavier Nady July 27, which was closely followed by the Jason Bay trade, the Pirates won 19 of their final 60 games. Over the course of a season, that translates into 111 losses.

That's what the Pirates and their fans have to look forward to in 2009.
As bad as 2001 was, it offered more hope at the end of the season. That team finished poorly, but not as badly as this one -- winning 22 of its final 60. What's more, the best players hadn't been traded out from under that team.

The 2001 team had established All-Star caliber players such as Brian Giles and Jason Kendall returning for 2002. It had one of the best young power hitters in the game in Aramis Ramirez. It had an outstanding young defensive shortstop in Jack Wilson. That team had something to build on -- although the Pirates were not able to do so.

What do these Pirates have to build upon?

No question that Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm had very good seasons. But one season, as followers of the Pirates well know -- see Warren Morris, Ronny Paulino, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny -- proves nothing. McLouth and Doumit declined appreciably in power in the second half. The belief here is both will be solid major leaguers. Whether they are middle-of-the-lineup bats, as Giles and Ramirez were, remains to be seen. The same for Maholm. He has the look of a quality major league pitcher, but not necessarily one who belongs at the top of the rotation.

The 2009 Pirates also will have Adam LaRoche, a first baseman with potential power but one who, because he'll be a year from free agency, will be actively shopped after midseason.

And that's another reason to have no hope for this franchise.

Pittsburgh Pirates' Adam LaRoche follows through on a fifth inning grand slam off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley in a baseball game in Pittsburgh Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008. Catching is Dodgers' Russell Martin.

This column has for some time defended the Pirates' low payroll with the following reasoning: It was impossible to have a high payroll until there were players on board worthy of high salaries.

When general manager Neal Huntington traded Nady, who had one more season of arbitration, and Bay, who had one more year on his contract, that theory blew up. With a chance to show the fan base they were willing to go beyond a $50 million ceiling, the Pirates blinked. Trading Nady, a client of Scott Boras and not likely to re-sign in 2010, was understandable. Trading Bay was not.

Why should anyone believe the Pirates will do anything different when Doumit and McLouth approach free agency, which will be after the 2011 season? By that time, Doumit will be 30 and McLouth 29. If the Pirates felt they needed to get younger talent for Nady and Bay, both 29 at the time of their trades, why wouldn't they feel the same about McLouth and Doumit?

Yes, much can change between now and then. But the Pirates have done little to indicate the franchise will compete differently.

When Bob Nutting -- the man who called Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly "the single-best management team in all of baseball" -- was announced as the Pirates' principal owner in January 2007, he was asked about raising payroll to keep key players. He said, "I'm not going to commit to a number and I'm not going to commit to individual players. That's not prudent."

In other words: he ducked the question. But it was answered some 19 months later when Nady and Bay were traded.

Will Nutting ever commit to keep a key player who commands an eight-figure salary, which a team must have to compete?

Huntington is talking about securing a power hitter, a starting pitcher and a right-handed reliever in free agency. Good luck.

Since the Pirates have said they won't be in the bidding for high-end free agency, that just about eliminates any hope of getting a legitimate power bat. There will be middle-of-the-rotation starters and right-handed relievers available. Whether the Pirates can compete in the bidding or whether the players will want to be a part of a team looking at its 17th consecutive losing season remains to be determined.

Huntington and Coonelly are not the best management team in all of baseball but they have shown promise. Their problem is this: The job in front of them is monumental and is many years away from being corrected.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author
First published on September 29, 2008 at 12:00 am

Sunday, September 28, 2008

NHL 2008-09: For the Penguins -- life after a run at the cup

Two victories stood between the Penguins and NHL Nirvana in June. One-hundred-and-twenty minutes of winning hockey. History tells us that may be as close as they get for awhile unless they can defy history and do what only one Stanley Cup loser has done in 40 years -- return to the final and win.

By Dave Molinari
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette photo illustration

Penguins Sidney Crosby, center, Marc-Andre Fleury, left, and Evgeni Malkin, right.

Don't get the wrong idea.

History doesn't completely rule out the possibility of the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup next spring.

It just comes awfully close.

Oh, the Penguins can be encouraged to learn that there is, in fact, precedent for a team winning the championship a year after losing in the Cup final. Especially if they don't notice that it's only happened once since the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967.

The Edmonton Oilers did it in 1984, beating the New York Islanders in five games in the championship round after being swept by the same opponent a year earlier.

So when the Penguins, who lost the 2008 final to Detroit in six games, open the 2008-09 season with a pair of games against Ottawa in Stockholm, Sweden next weekend, they will begin trying to fight their way into one of pro hockey's most exclusive clubs.

They've been compared to the Oilers of the early- and mid-1980s frequently during the past few winters -- it's hard to miss the parallels between a team built around the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr and one with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury in its nucleus -- and now will try to claim a space in the record book where only the Oilers' signature has been scrawled.

That seems an awful lot to ask of any club, but Ed Johnston, who was the Penguins' general manager when the Oilers were dominating the NHL, believes these Penguins could pull it off.

"We have a lot of similarities here," said Johnston, now a senior adviser with the Penguins. "You look at the youth and talent we have, with Crosby and Malkin and [Jordan] Staal, and our young [defense].

"We've got the guy in nets, almost like Fuhr. If you're making a comparison, I think that's a pretty good comparison."

The short-term effect

When Edmonton went from second place to league champion in 12 months, Ronald Reagan was running for his second term as president.

"Hello," by Lionel Richie was the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts.

"The Natural," starring Robert Redford, was filling theaters across the country.

A promising center named Mario Lemieux was three weeks away from being the No. 1 choice in the NHL draft.

Sidney Crosby was more than three years from being born.

The Penguins can't deny those realities, but aren't fixating on them, either.

"I don't [care] about it," center Max Talbot said, "because I know we can win."

Crosby is no less optimistic, as is his nature, but offered a more measured response when asked about the fate that have befallen most Cup runners-up, and how to avoid it.

"I haven't played the next year after going to the Stanley Cup final yet, so I wouldn't be able to tell you," he said, smiling.

Talbot theorized that some second-place finishers' problems the following season stem, at least in part, from the aftershocks of a go-for-broke approach that made reaching the final possible.

"Some teams would make [short-term personnel moves], sacrifice a couple of young guys to get some better players, then the next year, lose those guys," Talbot said.

The Penguins, it should be noted, made such a deal in February, sending Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a first-round draft choice to Atlanta for Marian Hossa.

The long march

While it's difficult to deal with losing in the final, whatever the reason, runners-up tend to fare considerably worse in the season that follows.

Since 1996, when Colorado swept Florida in the championship series, only one Cup loser -- the 1999-2000 Dallas Stars -- managed to win a single playoff series the following year. Four of the 11 didn't even qualify for the playoffs.

"I think they think it's going to be a little easier the following year," Johnston said. "That comes from leadership in your dressing room."

Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar played on one of those teams, the 1998 Washington Capitals. They went from losing to Detroit in the final to a 31-45-6 record the following season.

"From my experience ... it's really hard to keep your focus," Gonchar said. "It seems like you're pretty much playing or working out for two years.

"Sometimes, you can lose your focus. It seems like there is so much hockey, so much travel."

And that's without a trip across the Atlantic, like the one the Penguins began last evening, when they left for Sweden.

Going to Stockholm figures to create a unique set of problems for the Penguins, but even a standard-issue schedule can grind down a club coming off a long season and short summer.

Players who go to the Cup final have less time to rest and train, and that can lead to fatigue -- physical and/or mental -- the following season. Even if a player feels fresh and recharged in early autumn, he can start to wear down in February or March.

"It's hard," said right winger Petr Sykora, a veteran of three Cup finals. "You don't get your rest in the summer, you don't get the amount of time you need to prepare your body for the next season. ... There are going to be times in the season when you go through stretches where you're not used to being in that kind of situation."

The challenge of winning a Cup 12 months after losing in the final has been further complicated in recent years by liberalized free agency. That also explains why no champion has repeated since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.

"Obviously, there's a lot of player movement now," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "When you have [successful] teams, guys are targeted by other teams and it's tough to keep guys together."

The Penguins were able to re-sign Orpik during the off-season, but are trying to compensate for the loss of key contributors like Hossa and Ryan Malone. At the same time, many of the clubs with which they compete have upgraded their personnel.

"A lot of teams now have the opportunity to improve over the course of the summer," Johnston said. "They can fill one or two spots, and jump up and bite teams. You can get a pretty good hockey team pretty quick."

Head games

Players' reactions to learning of the struggles Cup runners-up had the next season ranged from mild amusement to genuine surprise to professional curiosity.

Far more uniform was their insistence that the Penguins are a viable threat to end the second-place slump.

"I don't [care] about it," Talbot said, "because I know we can win."

Few, if any, seem seriously concerned about having their energy reserves depleted over the course of the season.

"We have a young group of guys who recover quickly," Gonchar said.

Having so many youthful players in key roles and being, in general, well-conditioned should work in their favor. But even if their bodies hold up, keeping a sharp psychological edge during the dog days of winter might be tough.

At some point, all of the hockey they've played over 16 months or so could dissolve into a blur and steal some of the focus needed to be successful, night-in and night-out.

"I don't think that physically, it will be a test," Crosby said. "But mentally, it will be a test, for sure."

Not necessarily one they are doomed to fail. Especially if they take their cue from teammates like Crosby, whose passion for his work might be his most underrated asset.

"I know Sid won't be sick of hockey at any point in the year," Orpik said, laughing. "I don't know about other guys."

He has a point, but he also seems confident the relaxed atmosphere in the Penguins' locker room, a carryover from last season, could have tangible benefits as the season moves along.

"Something that helps our team is how loose we are," Orpik said. "It's a fun group to be around. When you hit those stretches in the middle of the season where you're kind of plugging away, we have a group that kind of picks you up and pushes you through with the energy we have in here."

They'll need that, if they're to be a factor in the 2009 playoffs. They'll need to find satisfactory replacements for guys like Hossa, Malone, Jarkko Ruutu and Georges Laraque, too. To stay healthy. To be lucky.

"We know it's not going to be easy," general manager Ray Shero said. "We've talked about that, and the players understand that, too. We've got to make the playoffs, become a competitive team and find our identity.

"We go through that every year. Hopefully, we'll be the team that breaks that streak."

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com.
First published on September 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Now that he's turned 21, can Crosby still be 'Sid the Kid'?

By Robert Dvorchak
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Peter Diana

Sidney Crosby jokes with season ticket holder David Disney after Crosby hand-delivered his tickets earlier this month. Mr. Disney has been a season ticket holder since 1967.

Sidney Crosby isn't the first driver confounded by the traffic tangles in and around Pittsburgh, but among all of the Penguins, he admittedly has the most trouble getting anywhere and is most apt to get lost.

"I'm way better now than I used to be, but that reputation has kind of followed me. My dad's pretty bad at directions, and I guess I got it from him," he chuckled. "Even when I follow people, they make a habit to follow the signs and landmarks. I get so focused, I don't pay attention."

His internal compass when it comes to hockey is a different story. Recently turned 21 and entering his fourth NHL season, Captain Crosby knows exactly where he wants to go and what it takes to get there. His teammates and the Penguins Nation, driven by dreams of a Stanley Cup, are on board for a hockey version of follow the leader.

The destination, of course, is a return trip to the Cup finals. The magical climb -- complete with frenzied sellouts and outdoor TV screens -- ended with a thud when the Penguins fell in six games to the Detroit Red Wings.

"We want to get back there, but every other team wants to get there too," Crosby said before the Penguins headed to Sweden to open the new season on the international stage. "Getting as far as we did and coming up short, it definitely gives us an even better goal for this year."

But no season, especially in the era of salary caps and free agency, picks up where it left off. The Penguins may be reigning champions of the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference, but the journey starts as fresh as a sheet of ice manicured by the Great Zamboni in the Sky. Every team will have the same record when the Penguins open the season with two games next weekend against the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm.

"That's the great thing about sports. You have to be able to come back, year after year, and prove yourself as a team. I think that's something we're all well aware of," he said.

And as far as who fills the role of bellwether, coach Michel Therrien pointed to the star player with the exemplary work ethic who comports himself well on and off the ice.

"When you're talking about leaders on our club, there's no doubt you're looking at our captain," the coach said.

Record breaker

If year four of the Sidney Crosby Era is anything like the first three, something historic awaits.

His rookie year witnessed the passing of the torch. Although the team struggled, and the NHL rookie of the year award went to Washington's Alex Ovechkin, an 18-year-old prodigy broke the franchise scoring record for rookies set by Mario Lemieux, the owner/captain/landlord who retired during the season because of health concerns.

In 2006-07, Crosby led the Penguins back into the playoffs after a long absence, although the Penguins were bounced in the first round by Ottawa. Along the way, Crosby became the youngest person to win a scoring title and the youngest player voted to a starting spot on the All-Star team. He won the Hart Trophy as the league MVP, the Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader and the Lester Pearson Trophy as outstanding player as voted by his peers, becoming only the seventh player in NHL history to win those three trophies in one year. He also played the last month of the season with a broken foot.

Last season, with Crosby serving as the youngest captain in NHL history, the breakout continued despite a high ankle sprain that forced him to miss 28 games. After winning their division, the Penguins won playoff rounds against Ottawa and Jaromir Jagr's New York Rangers, then claimed the Eastern Conference title with a series win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the first time they had ever beaten the Flyers in a playoff series. The run ended with the loss to the Red Wings, but Crosby had 27 playoff points, the same total as playoff MVP Henrik Zetterberg.

All of which leads up to a new season and the need for a new nickname. Sid The Kid, as he was known inside and outside the organization, turned 21 on Aug. 7. El Sid, anyone?

A 21st birthday is a milestone, and a big bash was organized in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, by Troy Crosby, Sidney's dad. Mario Lemieux came up. Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle flew in from Europe. Aunts and uncles and other members of the extended family joined in.

"It was really special," said Trina Crosby, the celebrant's mom. "Just because of the way life is, it's difficult for everybody to get together at once. This was a way to slow everything down for a couple of days. It was a wonderful way to bring everybody together."

The morning after the party, Crosby got up early, worked out for two hours and played 18 holes of golf. He got back in time before his guests gathered around the table for brunch.

Because of his hockey success, Crosby has become a cottage industry in the endorsement arena. His major deals -- worth multiple millions in total -- are with Gatorade, Reebok and Tim Hortons, the Canadian-based coffee and doughnut chain. (Tim Horton, by the way, began his pro career with the AHL Pittsburgh Hornets and later played for the Penguins, but the closest franchise of his doughnut empire is in Ohio.)

A number of other businesses have approached Crosby about being a pitchman, including some offers well into six figures, but he imposes his own limits on endorsements.

"He turns down offers every week," said Dee Rizzo, the Pittsburgh-based agent for CAA Hockey, which represents Crosby. "He's here to play hockey. He's here to win the Stanley Cup."

He's everywhere

Still, Crosby's name and image turn up in all kinds of places.

He was recently named a recipient of the Order of Nova Scotia, which is presented for excellence and achievement in the name of the Crown as the highest civic honor of his home province. He is entitled to place the letters O.N.S. after his name.

In his adopted home town, the handles of Crosby's hockey sticks were used in the ceremonial breaking of ground for the Penguins new arena, slated to open in two years. He is the two-time winner of the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year, and the only other Pittsburgh sports figure to win it in consecutive years was the late Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh. The newest penguin at the National Aviary on the North Side is named Sidney. His picture has graced the cover of magazines from Gentleman's Quarterly to Men's Fitness.

He is the most interviewed person in hockey, unflinchingly meeting with the media after morning skates and after games. This routine of being available twice a day continued in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Staying balanced

How is it possible that a young man can handle all this? Well, he gave his first newspaper interview when he was 7, and he accepts being in the spotlight the way he accepts having to lace up his skates before taking the ice.

"It just didn't happen after he turned 18," said his mother. "He got a lot of attention at a very early age. He's grown used to it. I think he's been able to prioritize. He's always been under the microscope. His main focus is to play hockey, but he has a clear idea of who he is off the ice too. It's a balance. He was able to find that at a young age.

"To me, I just see him as my son," she added. "I could sit down with any other mother who has a 21-year-old son and we could be singing the same song. But he has this other side. He loves challenges. There isn't anything he could do that would surprise me. He's a very strong leader, not a rah-rah cheerleader type, but he's a strong individual."

There is also a bond that has grown stronger between the Crosby family and Sidney's adopted home town.

"Sidney has a deep respect for the game, and he feels privileged to be able to play it for a living. We feel privileged because he's in such a great place," Mrs. Crosby said. "When he went there, he was a boy. The city kind of adopted him. He is one of their own.

"Pittsburgh people work hard, and they can appreciate someone who works hard for them. It's all a little overwhelming when there's 17,000 people cheering inside that arena. But not only do they appreciate his hockey skills, they appreciate what he represents as an individual. That means a lot to a parent."

So what's next for top player in hockey, as selected by The Hockey News?

"Hopefully, the Stanley Cup," said Crosby, who is one goal shy of having 100 in his career and six points away from reaching 300 points. "But I think if you asked every player in the league, they're saying the same thing. That's always been on my mind since I started playing. It doesn't change. It's what you work for."

But there may be just a little extra incentive from the experience of having come so close last season before watching another team celebrate with hockey's holy grail.

"It's a terrible feeling," Crosby said.

Does that make him want it more?

"Yeah, I think it does. I don't think I ever questioned how much I wanted it. But I want to get back there," Crosby said. "You want the feeling of winning, but it's almost like you don't ever want that feeling of losing again. I don't know which is stronger. "

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com
First published on September 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Friday, September 26, 2008

Vernon, former Pirate player, coach, dead at 90

By The Associated Press
Thursday, September 25, 2008

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Mickey Vernon, a two-time American League batting champion with the Washington Senators and seven-time All-Star first baseman during a four-decade career, has died. He was 90.

American League All-Stars: Al Rosen, Mickey Vernon, Mickey Mantle circa 1954

Vernon died Wednesday at Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, a hospital spokeswoman told The Associated Press. He had suffered a stroke last week, said Jim Vankoski, Vernon's friend of 25 years.

Vernon played 20 major league seasons (1939-43 and 1946-60) with Washington, the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates. He won the AL batting title in 1946 and 1953 and was career .286 hitter. He played 2,409 games, finishing with 2,495 hits, including 490 doubles and 120 triples and 1,311 RBIs.

He also was the first manager of the Senators' second incarnation in the 1960s and had career record of 135-227 as a manager.

In August, Vernon was among 10 players whose careers started before 1943 named by the Veterans Comm ittee for consideration for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The results are to be announced Dec. 8.

Vernon made his playing debut with the Senators midseason 1939, and the 21-year-old left-handed first-baseman hit .267 in 79 at-bats. He spent most of the next season in Jersey City and returned to Washington in 1941, when he began establishing himself as one of the league's solid first basemen.

He missed the 1944 and 1945 seasons due to military service in the Navy during World War II.

When Vernon returned to baseball in 1946, he had arguably his finest season, winning his first American League batting title with a .353 average. He had a career-high 207 hits in 587 at-bats and finished with 51 doubles, eight triples, eight home runs and 85 RBIs.

He won his second batting title in 1953, batting .337 and edging Cleveland first baseman Al Rosen by .001 for the title. Vernon had 205 hits in 608 at-bats, including 43 doubles, 11 triples, 15 homers and a career-high 115 RBIs.

He closed out his career with the 1960 World Series champion Pirates, spending most of the season as a coach before being activated late in the season and becoming one of a few players to compete in four decades.

Vernon was named manager of the expansion Senators in 1961 and held the position until 1963. He went on to coach with the Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. He also managed at the Triple-A and Double-A levels.

Born April 22, 1918, in Marcus Hook, Pa., James Barton "Mickey" Vernon attended Villanova University. He returned to area after retiring from baseball and made his home there until his death.

His hometown of Marcus Hook dedicated a life-size statue of Vernon in September 2003 on the very sandlot fields he played as a child, one block from his former home.

Vernon is survived by his daughter, Gay.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dislocated shoulder sidelines Gonchar

By Rob Rossi
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Penguins' Sergei Gonchar will be sidelined for an unknown length of time due to a shoulder separation suffered last week in an exhibition game.

Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review file

The Penguins won't have their "Sarge" running the show for a while.

Top defenseman Sergei Gonchar is out indefinitely with a left shoulder dislocation -- the result of a hit into the boards by Tampa Bay forward David Koci midway through the opening period of an exhibition game Saturday at Mellon Arena.

General manager Ray Shero said Wednesday "indefinite is really the way to put it, because we don't know."

"We won't know more maybe until next week, when he has a chance to see some other doctors, get some other opinions, other avenues he can take for getting better," Shero said prior to the Penguins' final home exhibition game against Toronto. "Right now, he's starting his rehab."

Gonchar has yet to undergo a Magnetic Resonance Imaging examination, Shero said. He added that surgery "is an option" and said the organization would support Gonchar if he sought that option.

Gonchar, 34, was not available for comment.

J.P. Barry, who represents Gonchar, said via a text message he had "no idea yet" how much time Gonchar might miss.

"We are still getting all the advice we need on the best course of action," Barry wrote.

The loss of Gonchar, the NHL's second-highest scoring defenseman with 431 points since 2000, is a jarring blow to the Penguins -- especially considering the current status of defenseman Ryan Whitney.

An August surgery to correct a left-foot deformity will keep Whitney out until at least December. Gonchar (132) and Whitney (99) have combined to account for 71 percent of the Penguins' defensive scoring the past two seasons.

Gonchar has worked the point on the Penguins' top power-play unit since his arrival for the 2005-06 season. He has scored 26 goals and recorded 106 assists for an advantage attack that finished no lower than sixth over that span.

Assistant coach Mike Yeo, who runs the club's power play, said Sunday that Whitney "would have been the obvious replacement for Gonchar" on that unit. Whitney has scored 20 goals and recorded 53 assists on the power play the past three seasons.

The Penguins placed center Evgeni Malkin on the power-play point last night, with rookie defenseman Alex Goligoski working the off-point that Malkin occupied late last season.

Goligoski, a dominant offensive player over three seasons at the University of Minnesota (98 points in 117 games), had a standout first professional season last year. He scored 10 goals and recorded 38 points in 70 regular-season games with AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton -- adding four goals and 28 points in 23 Calder Cup playoff contests.

Coach Michel Therrien said yesterday the injuries to Gonchar and Whitney "provided opportunities for young players to prove they belong in the NHL." He was specifically referring to Goligoski and right-handed shooting defenseman Kris Letang, who scored six goals and recorded 17 points over 63 games with the Penguins last season.

Letang's performance forced veteran Darryl Sydor to watch most of the Stanley Cup playoffs as a healthy scratch. However, Sydor replaced Letang after Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final.

Goligoski, 23, and Letang, 21, were by far the youngest defensemen competing in training camp for a spot among the Penguins' top six. They are joined by veterans Brooks Orpik, 27, Rob Scuderi, 29, Hal Gill, 33, and Sydor, 36.

Orpik and Gonchar were considered the club's top defensive pairing. Gonchar paced the club with a per-game average ice time of 25 minutes and 54 seconds last season.

Shero termed playing without Gonchar and Whitney -- third in average ice time last season at 22:26 -- "a challenge," but added "it's no different than last year playing without your top goaltender and top player."

Center Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury each missed significant time last season due to ankle sprains. The Penguins still won the Atlantic Division -- their first division title since 1998.

"As I've said about this team, it's been very resilient," Shero said. "We do have some younger players that certainly deserve the opportunity to step up and play, and we do have some veterans that can step up as well.

"Three weeks ago we we're happy with our depth on defense, and right now I'm happy we have that."

Rob Rossi can be reached at rrossi@tribweb.com or 412-380-5635.

There's no 'O' in defense

The Penguins will start the season without defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, who combined for 71 percent of the points provided from that position the past two seasons. A look at the offensive production of the club's current defensemen over that span:


Sergei Gonchar- 25 107 132
Ryan Whitney- 26 73 99
*Hal Gill- 9 35 44
#Darryl Sydor- 6 28 34
Kris Letang- 8 11 19
Brooks Orpik- 1 16 17
Rob Scuderi- 1 15 16
Mark Eaton- 0 6 6
^Alex Goligoski- 0 2 2
Danny Richmond- 0 2 2

*8 goals, 32 assists, 40 points with Toronto (2006-2008)

#5 goals, 16 assists, 21 points with Dallas (2006-07)

^Appeared in 3 games (2007-08); would be a rookie this season

Source: NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins

Draft-day error? We'll know soon

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Coaches are doing everything they can to prepare Rashard Mendenhall for what awaits him Monday night including, ahem, the psychological aspects of playing against the Ravens.

Too good to pass up -- that was Rashard Mendenhall in April, in that first round of the NFL draft.

Maybe not too good to have passed up -- that was Rashard Mendenhall in August, when he was littering preseason lawns with fumbled footballs.

Not too good at all -- that has been Rashard Mendenhall in September, when he has managed less than 3 yards per carry and compelled no one to clamor for his presence on a troubled Steelers offense.

Not too good to pass to -- that was Rashard Mendenhall Sunday in Philadelphia, where he dropped the only ball thrown his way.

And finally, just plain not -- that's what has defined Rashard Mendenhall's attendance in the running game the past two weeks.

"He's not Willie Parker," Ben Roethlisberger noted as the Steelers began the intense portion of their preparations for the looming Monday nighter against Baltimore. "But he doesn't need to be a Willie Parker, he just needs to be the best Rashard Mendenhall he can be."

You know, like in April, when he was too good to pass up. Which introduces a wicked little irony, does it not?

Here's a running back with a CliffsNotes resume who somehow becomes the first pick of a club with serious offensive line issues, a club that ignored that particular shrieking need for the first three rounds on draft day, swooning at the likes of Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed, a club that, with an injured Parker, now turns to Mendenhall to re-enable an offense that hasn't scored a touchdown in nine quarters.

So now, No. 34 floats through a surreal week of practice at the far end of which he will take the field for his first pro start, in prime time, in that goofy yella throwback helmet, and what does he see in front of him? A club with serious offensive line issues, due in some part to its enchantment with him.

"I'm not concerned about it," Mendenhall was saying yesterday. "I just want to take it all in stride and come in well-prepared. I'm going to try to keep everything as normal as I can this week."

Yeah, good luck with that.

On a team averaging worse than one fallen starter per week so far, Mendenhall is in a real difficult spot. Even with the All-Pro Parker at its disposal, the Steelers have converted exactly five of their past 25 third-down opportunities. With its front line ripped to tatters Sunday in Philadelphia and its quarterback found mostly under 600 pounds of Eagles defensive personnel, the chance that suddenly Mendenhall can set up makeable third downs seems dubious.

"It's not gonna be easy; they have the No. 1 defense in the league," right tackle Willie Colon said of Rashard vs. the Ravens. "For the most part, I think he'll be able to handle it. He's a mature kid. He's a downhill kid. He likes the contact. He'll be ready. It's just a matter of making him aware of what he needs to be aware of."

Roethlisberger spent a few minutes with Mendenhall after practice yesterday, as did head coach Mike Tomlin, as did running backs coach Kirby Wilson. Presumably, they were not making him aware of how much they'd have liked to have had Jeff Otah, the Pitt offensive tackle who has started his first three games with Carolina, which swiped him four picks in front of the Steelers April 26. Nor were they expressing any second thoughts about passing up left tackle Duane Brown, who has started both games for the Houston Texans.

It's true the Steelers weren't the only club that desperately needed offensive line help that day. Seven of the first 21 players taken were blockers. It's also true the Steelers had no business waiting until the fourth round to attempt to get help up front. Tony Hills of Texas, your fourth-round pick, hasn't given much indication that help is even on the way.

Roethlisberger spent part of yesterday listing the ways the Steelers can help Mendenhall operate in a storm of inexperience and ragin' Ravens pressure. He mentioned that fullback Carey Davis will do "a lot of helpin'," and the offense lined Sean McHugh up in front of Mendenhall for a few plays in practice yesterday as well. Roethlisberger didn't mention who, if anybody, will help No. 7.

"It wasn't anything they did," Hines Ward kept insisting about the Eagles' onslaught Sunday. "It was a communications breakdown. Ben has to read hot routes, and the receivers have to break hot."

No one seemed to want to mention what Mendenhall's gotta do. He's gotta get 25 carries. He's gotta get 100 yards. Should he fail, even for reasons well beyond his control, Tuesday will bring a lot of discussion on the matter of who was and who wasn't too good to pass up.

First published on September 25, 2008 at 12:00 am

Alvarez after signing: 'I will work my hardest'

Pirates finally sign top pick after MLB, union settle grievance

By Dejan Kovacevic and Colin Dunlap
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, September 25, 2008

David Arrigo/Pittsburgh Pirates

Pedro Alvarez, left, is congratulated by Pirates director of scouting Greg Smith after signing his contract at 6:24 p.m. yesterday at PNC Park.

MILWAUKEE -- Finally, after more than three months of haggling, backtracking, posturing and even litigating on a national stage, the Pirates have signed Pedro Alvarez, their first-round draft pick.

This time in indelible ink.

Alvarez and his New York-based family flew to Pittsburgh as the former Vanderbilt University standout third baseman passed his physical and, at 6:24 p.m. yesterday, put pen to paper on a four-year, $6,355,000 contract. Earlier in the day, a related grievance filed by the Major League Baseball Players Association against commissioner Bud Selig's office was settled amicably.

All of that cleared the way for Alvarez to begin his professional career this weekend in the rookie-level Florida Instructional League.

"I'm so happy this day has come," Alvarez said in a conference call with reporters from PNC Park last night. "I just want to play baseball."

A conference call was chosen rather than the standard news conference, the Pirates explained, because the team is finishing its season on the road.

Once Alvarez does get about the business of facing fastballs instead of legal briefings, as he seemed to grasp, he surely will have many fences to mend, with the Pirates and the many baseball fans who voiced their displeasure during his highly publicized absence.

"I just want the fans of Pittsburgh to judge me as the professional player that I am now," Alvarez replied to a question on that subject. "I will work my hardest to be the best player I can be, to be a leader on and off the field in the community. It's a big day for me and my family. When I was a little kid, we dreamed of this. And the fact that it's a reality now ... all I can say is, starting today, I will be the best player I can be."

Alvarez, 21, is the son of Pedro Alvarez Sr., a livery cab driver in the heavily-Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. His mother, Luz, and sister, Yolayna, also joined him at the signing.

"This is a hard, blue-collar community just like where I grew up, and my family instilled that work ethic in me," Alvarez said. "That's what's going to happen here: I'll work my hardest and be the best I can be."

Just before or after MLB's midnight Aug. 15 signing deadline for draft picks, Alvarez verbally agreed to a $6 million minor league contract. Two days later, Alvarez's agent, Scott Boras, informed the Pirates that he considered the agreement against MLB rules because the Pirates did not receive the blessing of the union.

Boras sought a fresh negotiation that same day, and the Pirates emphatically declined, leading -- indirectly or not -- to the players' union filing a grievance Aug. 27 against baseball commissioner Bud Selig's office that threatened to nullify Alvarez's contract and possibly others.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly and Boras publicly sniped at each other at times, but Alvarez kept quiet. His most recent public speaking before yesterday came June 5, the day he was the No. 2 pick in the draft, and even his whereabouts were mostly unknown to all but his family, Boras and a few friends until the past two weeks.

David Arrigo/Pittsburgh Pirates

Pedro Alvarez embracing his father after signing his contract yesterday at PNC Park.

That prompted some critics to charge that Alvarez was being controlled by Boras, one of the most successful and influential agents in baseball history, but Alvarez denied that yesterday.

"Throughout this whole process, I, myself, wanted a fair trial, and I wanted everything to play itself out," Alvarez said. "I thought for myself and made decisions for myself."

The grievance settlement added two elements of clarification to the language in MLB's labor pact: One, Selig's office no longer will be allowed to unilaterally grant extensions of the signing deadline. Two, an arbitrator will have the authority to void any agreement struck afterward. Each area had been disputed.

They also agreed that Alvarez could sign a new contract well beyond the original deadline and that Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer, another draft pick and Boras client brought into the matter against the wishes of the Royals, the player and the agent, could return to action. MLB had ordered Hosmer to stop playing pending a resolution of the grievance.

"From the beginning, our primary concern was allowing Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Hosmer to begin their professional careers as quickly as possible, and this settlement accomplishes that goal," MLB executive vice president of labor relations Rob Manfred said. "We fully support and welcome the changes to the manner in which the deadline will be administered."

"The agreement fully satisfies the union's objective, made clear from the outset, which was to defend the integrity of its collectively bargained agreements," union general counsel Mike Weiner said.

The push to get Pirates and Boras to reach a settlement, it became clear yesterday, came from MLB and the union from opposite sides. That began, coincidence or not, after Selig testified Sept. 10 in the only hearing for the grievance, and it even included assisting in the negotiation of financial terms this past weekend.

Agreement was reached early Sunday night mostly by changing the terms of the contract from minor league to major league. With that compromise, the Alvarez side could argue that Alvarez will make more money if he reaches Pittsburgh quickly -- baseball evaluators feel he could do so within a year or two -- while the Pirates could argue that, because the signing bonus was staggered over four years rather than two, Alvarez will receive less guaranteed money in the revised deal because of interest and inflation.

"It wasn't easy," Coonelly said.

Some rancor from the dispute lasted even beyond the signing: Coonelly mentioned in the conference call, unsolicited, that he felt the new deal was "comparable in value" to the original. Boras, who had not been expected to participate in the call, later entered and called the new deal "a favorable change for Pedro Alvarez ... much different than the one previously offered."

Boras' stance has been that the Pirates were granted a special favor by MLB, where Coonelly worked for a decade, in receiving a deadline extension. He charged MLB and the team with orchestrating events Aug. 15 so that the Royals' agreement with Hosmer would be approved after the Pirates', even though, by all accounts, the Royals had their agreement before midnight. MLB kept the Royals on hold on the phone, Boras maintained, while the Pirates talked to Alvarez well past midnight, then approved the Royals' deal so that someone else would appear to come later.

Thus, Boras argued, his client felt extra pressure in talking to the Pirates after midnight.

Coonelly rejected that scenario in a separate call last night.

"Completely untrue," Coonelly said. "We were not given any advance notice by the commissioner's office that any deadline extensions would be granted. In fact, earlier that day, we were told the opposite."

David Arrigo/Pittsburgh Pirates

Pedro Alvarez greets children during season ticket holders field day event.

Coonelly and Boras never were in the same room yesterday, incidentally. Coonelly was on business in Bradenton, and Boras with Alvarez at PNC Park.

Alvarez made clear that he supported Boras' representation.

"We fought for a fair negotiation, and I believe we got that," he said. "I am completely satisfied with what was going on throughout the whole process. I am a big believer in faith, and I held onto my faith. I knew everything would work out for the best."

Once financial terms were reached Sunday, Alvarez and his family traveled to Pittsburgh Tuesday, then were joined by Boras yesterday. They stayed Downtown and spent much of yesterday at PNC, including Alvarez greeting some season-ticket holders at a private function.

Alvarez's next step will be a return to baseball: Idle since Vanderbilt's season ended in June, he had been training with his former college teammates in Nashville, Tenn., and he will return there today to collect his belongings. From there, he will fly to Bradenton, Fla., home of the Pirates' spring facility and begin playing as soon as Saturday. The Florida season runs until Oct. 17.

General manager Neal Huntington did not rule out winter baseball, as well, but said it would be "unfair" to the prospects already assigned to the two elite leagues -- in Arizona and Hawaii -- to remove them from already-full rosters for Alvarez. The Pirates had dangled a winter assignment as a carrot for Alvarez during the long wait.

Huntington said Alvarez's path to the majors will be dictated by performance and would not speculate on which level would be his starting point. Many observers feel he will be with Class AA Altoona at least by the end of 2009, if not sooner.

"He's going to be a strong, middle-of-the-lineup bat for us for many years," Huntington said. "I think few players have been damaged by a conservative track, and I think history is littered with players damaged with clubs rushing them. He has an advanced skill set, but his progress will determine how quickly he moves through the system."

To clear space on the 40-man roster for Alvarez, the Pirates placed injured starter Tom Gorzelanny on the 60-day disabled list.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. Colin Dunlap can be reached at cdunlap@post-gazette.com.
First published on September 25, 2008 at 12:00 am