Monday, July 28, 2008

Steelers Training Camp: Misery remains Polamalu's company

All-Pro safety starts camp hurt after a 2007 season riddled with injuries

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com
Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Safety Troy Polamalu watches from the sideline with his leg wrapped yesterday.


Troy Polamalu lines up and plays all over the field for the Steelers, yet he found it difficult to open his sixth training camp at a new position yesterday -- on the sideline.

That came courtesy of an injury to his left hamstring that developed a week ago today while he was running to stay in shape.

"It's always miserable being injured," Polamalu said.
He became all-too familiar with that misery a year ago when he missed five full games and played in many others with injuries that varied from broken/bruised ribs, a partially torn PCL in a knee and an abdominal injury.

His latest setback, which prompted coach Mike Tomlin to place him on the physically unable to perform list and thus unable to practice, does not appear to be serious. Polamalu could have avoided the conditioning test Sunday in which he completed all eight 100-yard runs, but he opted to go through it.

Afterward, he wrapped his hamstring and that night the coach placed him on the PUP.

"There's no hidden story there," Tomlin said. "He has a mild hamstring [injury]; he did it late in the summer training for camp.

"He was well enough to run the conditioning test but that didn't include changes of direction and some of the short bursts that we all know he's capable of. We're going to deal with a little short-term misery and allow him to be well."

Polamalu could return to full active status in a matter of days, but then, it's not important to have him on the field in the first week or two of training camp as it is a healthy Polamalu for all of the 2008 season.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may be the most important player on the team, but the Steelers' defense revolves around Polamalu. It is why he's their highest-paid defensive player in history.

"You know on any play he can make a great, spectacular play," 11th-year cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "He's one of those players who's truly a playmaker. Any time you have him out there, you know some plays are going to be made. That's one thing that you miss when he's hurt is having a tremendous playmaker out there."

For the first time since his arrival in 2003, Polamalu had neither sacks nor interceptions last season. His 74 tackles were his fewest since his rookie season, when he did not start. It was to his credit that he maintained his pass defense with 11 passes broken up -- just one fewer than his personal high -- and a career-high three forced fumbles.

He did not look like the same player, though, because of the rib and knee injuries. It's one reason he returned to California this spring to work with his personal trainer, Marv Marinovich, rather than with his teammates in Pittsburgh.

Polamalu, a California native, said he accomplished everything he wanted to this spring and reported to camp in great shape -- other than the hamstring problem -- and at a new weight.

"Physically I feel better, I feel more rejuvenated that I was able to get the proper training and rehabilitation for my knee," he said. "Also, being around my [extended] family for a long period of time is always nice as well."

Polamalu played at 215 pounds his first few years, then dropped back to between 200-205 to help him cover receivers man to man. He's back to 215 today because he believes he needs a little more to take on the linemen he often faces because he often plays closer to the line of scrimmage than most safeties in the game.

"I felt more of a toll taken on my body, that I needed to be bigger," Polamalu said.

The Steelers had the No. 1 defense overall in yards allowed last season but their big plays sunk -- to just 36 sacks (down three from 2006 and 11 from 2005) and only 11 interceptions (down nine from 2006).

The dip in big plays and interceptions might have contributed to the Steelers' defense not being able to hold some leads last season.

"Yeah, we got off the field the hard way -- we worked, we worked," Polamalu said. "It'd feel great if we make some big plays and turnovers; that right there would make us one of the top teams in the NFL."

For them to be that, they need a full-time, healthy Polamalu on the field.

"It's really exciting to be back. I'm like a thoroughbred when you put him in the gates."

It's just not yet post time for Polamalu.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on July 29, 2008 at 12:00 am

Roethlisberger will drive Steelers' success

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks down field as he drops back to pass.


After one day of training camp, it seems obvious the Steelers have a lot going against them. Casey Hampton is too fat. Troy Polamalu and Chris Kemoeatu are too lame. The offensive line could be too weak. The defensive line could be too old. The schedule is too tough. The Cleveland Browns could be too strong.
But the Steelers also have one very important thing going for them.

Big Ben.

"It almost scares me how good he is, how into it he is and how good he's going to be," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was saying between camp practices yesterday.

Probably scares a few NFL defensive coordinators, too.

The Steelers are lucky to have an elite player at football's most crucial position, the best quarterback in the league not named Tom Brady. You might argue for Peyton Manning. The Steelers and I will take Ben Roethlisberger at this stage of their careers. That's why the Steelers gave him a $102 million contract in March, including a $25.2 million signing bonus. That's why I'm here to tell you this morning he is the one reason to like the Steelers' chances of holding off the Browns in the AFC North Division.

I'm thankful I have the easy part, not the money part.

Roethlisberger has done so much so quickly that it's easy to forget he's 26, starting his fifth season. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to go 13-0 in the regular season as a rookie in 2004. He led the Steelers to the Super Bowl in '05. Forget '06 because of his motorcycle accident, emergency appendectomy and concussion. He set franchise records last season with 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating and made his first Pro Bowl.

"He's going to continue to grow as a quarterback," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He'll keep getting better and better."

Arians already has seen it on the practice fields at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. "It's the way he carries himself," he said. "It's a night-and-day difference now from where he was two years ago. Then, he was like, 'I've got to take care of myself. This stuff is hard.' Now, he's like, 'I've got most of it down. I can help the other guys.' "

In the team run test Sunday, Roethlisberger was the first to Hampton when Hampton clearly was struggling. (Unfortunately, he didn't kick The Big Snack in his fat behind for letting his coaches and teammates down). After the morning practice yesterday, he walked off the field with wide receiver Willie Reid, who had a couple of minor dust-ups with defensive players during drills. "You have to be smart," Roethlisberger could be heard telling Reid.

I'm thinking the Steelers bought a little leadership for that $102 million.
But let's be real here. The Rooneys paid the big money for big plays, touchdown passes and wins. There are reasons to think Roethlisberger will deliver on all fronts.

There are the new rookie additions -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed, the big target Roethlisberger coveted -- to an offense that includes the ultimate possession receiver in Ward, a budding big-play man in Santonio Holmes, a terrific tight end in Heath Miller and a healthy Willie Parker at running back.

"I think we have an explosive offense that's ready to take off," Roethlisberger said.

There is an underappreciated offensive line that's better than the 47 sacks the Steelers gave up last season, at least according to the poor fellow who was on the receiving end of all 47 and was lucky to walk away from the last game. "I'm excited for those guys so they can silence the critics who are talking bad about them," Roethlisberger said. "I have all the faith in the world that they'll protect me."

There is an apparent willingness on Arians' part to use a bit more of the no-huddle offense, much to Roethlisberger's delight.

"It's just always been that when things go faster and get crazy and I'm calling my own plays, things seem to work better for me," Roethlisberger said.

But mostly, there is Big Ben.

It's fair to think Roethlisberger's greatest improvement will show in the interceptions he doesn't throw and the sacks he doesn't take. Arians said that's nothing more than maturity.

"Ben has great confidence in his ability to make a play when it looks like it might not be there," he said. "I never want to take that away from him. But, at the same time, he'll get better knowing when it's OK to throw the darn thing away. Why take a hit that you don't have to? Why force something and throw that interception?"

Roethlisberger threw three picks in the first half of the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, a big reason the Steelers trailed by 18 points going into the fourth quarter. It didn't matter that he played the position as well as you can play it in the second half, completing 17 of 23 passes for 188 yards, leading four consecutive scoring drives and putting the Steelers ahead late. They ended up losing, 31-29.

"I'm ashamed of the way I played," Roethlisberger said afterward.

The man didn't back off those words much this week.

"It's one of those things that you're disappointed because you let a lot of guys down. But you can't dwell on it because, if you do, you're not going to get better. You let it go. It's over. I'm moving on."

And taking the Steelers with him.

Make no mistake about this:

Big Ben is their best chance of going a long way.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
More articles by this author
First published on July 29, 2008 at 12:00 am

Tomlin gives Big Snack a big smack on Day 1

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/
Monday, July 28, 2008


Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette

The Steelers take the field yesterday to do their run tests on the first day of training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.


The wise guy couldn't help himself when Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton finally waddled out of the chow hall at training camp last night.

"Tofu?" the man inquired of Hampton's dinner fare.

"Nah, barbecued chicken," The Big Snack said.

What?

You think Hampton is going to get in fighting shape in one day?

C'mon.

In a way, it's easy to laugh at Hampton's situation after he was unceremoniously dumped on the Steelers' physically unable to perform (PUP) list only hours after reporting to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe because, as coach Mike Tomlin tersely put it, "he's not in any kind of shape to play football." It's always easy to make fun of the big, fat guy, right? Especially if the big, fat guy is willing to laugh at himself. Asked how long he expects to be on the list, which means he can't practice with the team and only can work out, Hampton grinned and said, "I hope all of camp."

Really, who wants to practice in the Latrobe heat?

If Hampton has his way, the next snap he takes will be in the Steelers' opener against the Houston Texans Sept. 7.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Even the great Hampton -- one of the NFL's best nose tackles and a Pro Bowler in each of the past three seasons -- needs the work.

That's why Tomlin sees nothing funny about Hampton's weight problem. The guess here is it disappoints him to no end and also ticks him off because Hampton has let the team down, although he didn't say that. What he did say flatly when asked if he was concerned that Hampton wouldn't be ready for the season was this: "Yes, I am."

This is not the way the Steelers wanted to open camp, especially not with two other crucial starters -- safety Troy Polamalu (hamstring) and guard Chris Kemoeatu (triceps) -- also put on the physically unable to perform list. It's just not every day that one of your best and highest-paid players is so publicly slapped and embarrassed.

But there was one positive to it.

The other players noticed.

You bet they noticed.

"Doing this to a player of Casey's stature sends a message to everyone else -- nobody is safe," defensive captain James Farrior said.

"It doesn't surprise me with Tomlin. It doesn't matter who you are with him. You have to perform," veteran wide receiver Hines Ward added.


Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Steelers' Casey Hampton talks with Hall of Famer and former Steeler Joe Greene in between workouts this morning at training camp.


Maybe you see something wrong with that.

I surely don't.

I think it's a good thing when every player knows he has to play his best -- or else.

"I don't send messages. I just take action," Tomlin said, trying to dismiss that aspect of the Hampton business. But the boss had to grin when reminded that messages often do go along with his actions. "I'm not going to complain if that is the case," he said.

Shame on Hampton for putting Tomlin and the Steelers in this situation. Where is his discipline? Where is his pride? If he wants to let himself go five years from now, fine. But how can he do it now when his career is on the line and his teammates are depending on him?

Those teammates love Hampton, by the way, as much as any player on the team. He's such a big lug you can't help but like him. A few teammates tried to defend him yesterday, saying he had a tough offseason because of some personal issues. "Some things going on at home," is the way Hampton put it.

But blaming those problems for Hampton's weight trouble is letting him off the hook too easily. This isn't the first time he came to camp in less than perfect shape. He talked of how former Steelers coach Bill Cowher gave him the business about his weight on more than one occasion and "you guys made a big deal out of it ... The first time it happened was the first year I made the Pro Bowl."

The difference between then and now is four years, an eternity for a player, especially a big player. Hampton turns 31 Sept. 3. Losing the extra weight at his age is a lot harder than when he was 26 or 27. Certainly, he wouldn't be the first player to eat himself out of the league prematurely.

What a shame that would be.

For the Steelers, sure.

But more so for Hampton, who signed a five-year, $22.775 million contract before the 2005 season. He could cost himself millions in that deal and his next contract if he's too fat to play.

You would think that would be enough to make Hampton push himself away from the dinner table.

"It's unfortunate he came in like this, but I'm not worried about him being ready for the season," Farrior said. "He always gets himself ready ...

"We need him, I know that. He's our anchor."

Said Hampton, "I know I need to be in better shape. I know what I have to do. Bottom line, come Sept. 7, I'll be ready to play."

The man still might want to consider that tofu.

Just in case.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com
First published on July 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Sunday, July 27, 2008

REPORTING DAY: Mike Tomlin heads into his second training camp

A slew of critical position battles are on his agenda but no preconceived notions on how they will turn out

Sunday, July 27, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/

Post-Gazette

Pictured from top, left to right: Row 1, Sean Mahan, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Kemoeatu, Ryan Grant; Row 2, Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden; Row 3, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons; Row 4, Mike Tomlin, Willie Parker.


How does Mike Tomlin love going to training camp? Let him count the ways.

"I love football, I love this process, I love going to camp, I love team-building, readying ourselves to pursue our goals. I am extremely excited. If I had to characterize it, I would say no more excited or no less excited than a year ago."

Training camp a lovefest? Latrobe in late July and early August for the Steelers never has been confused with Woodstock, although all those motorcycles zipping around Westmoreland County for the National Bikers Roundup this week will choke the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the Steelers' coach obviously has not taken the harrumph outlook by many on his team to heart, not seen the dire predictions about their reign as one-year AFC North champs ending and the title moving to Cleveland, about the issues in the offensive and defensive lines, about having the most difficult schedule in the NFL.

Others won't write his team's story before the first chapter, Tomlin said as he convenes the Steelers at Saint Vincent College this afternoon and puts them through a running test to open their 42nd training camp on the bucolic yet expanding small-college campus.

"There will be a lot of issues, and that is what training camp is about. I think one of the things that I am always conscious about is that I never try to tell a story; I always try to let the story unfold and call it as I see it. That is what I intend to do this year as well."

Tomlin has some noted larger issues, such as a possible 60 percent turnover in starters in his offensive line, the age of his defensive line, building a better pass rush and finding return men. Every team has issues in the salary-cap era in which talent is spread more evenly across the league and depth is always a problem. It's why a team such as the New York Giants could pull off what the Steelers did after the 2005 season by winning all of their playoff games on the road and then upsetting the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Training camp is a time to start solving the concerns.

Besides team and unit issues, competition will be keen for some individuals fighting for starting jobs and roster spots. Among them:

• Veteran Larry Foote vs. 2007 top draft pick Lawrence Timmons at the mack inside linebacker position that Foote has held the past four seasons. Even Foote has intimated the writing is on the wall for Timmons to take his spot.

• Newcomer Justin Hartwig vs. Sean Mahan at center. Mahan was underwhelming in his first year after signing from Tampa Bay in 2007. Hartwig once was a good center in Tennessee, but he was affected by an injury in Carolina.

• Chris Kemoeatu replacing seven-time Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca. Kemoeatu would seem to have no competition, even though he has started just two games in three years.

• Willie Colon vs. Max Starks at offensive right tackle. Colon beat out Starks, who started in 2005 and 2006, last summer. Does paying Starks $7 million this season add to his virtues in this competition?

• Deshea Townsend vs. Bryant McFadden at right cornerback. McFadden, entering his fourth season, has yet to surpass the steady old vet.

• Ryan Clark vs. Anthony Smith at free safety. As long as Clark, who had his spleen removed at mid-2007 season, is healthy, it's his job. Smith took over when Clark left, then could not hold onto it.

• Willie Parker and rookie Rashard Mendenhall at running back. This won't be an either/or situation but the start of what should be a good one-two punch for the Steelers that might on occasion see them in the backfield at the same time. How much time Mendenhall gets will depend on Mendenhall.

"The growth of his role will be determined on his ability to execute from an assignment standpoint," Tomlin said. "I don't have a crystal ball, and we will let that play out. He's got a nice, humble mentality about him, so I won't be shocked if he does some nice things for us."

• Finding a return man. Santonio Holmes, who did a good job of returning punts as a rookie in 2006, wasn't allowed to do it last season, and everyone else failed. He could be the leading candidate. Others of note: Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Willie Reid and Jeremy Bloom.

• Find a new third-down back: Najeh Davenport and, on occasion, Carey Davis performed that job last season. It almost surely will go to Moore, who was signed for that purpose as an unrestricted free agent from the Minnesota Vikings.

• Dennis Dixon, the team's fifth-round draft choice, will replace departed Brian St. Pierre as the No. 3 quarterback.

• Plenty of roster decisions must be made, such as the No. 3 tight end, the No. 5 or even 6 wide receivers, which backup offensive linemen to keep, whether one or two of the young defensive linemen can bump off an old vet backup or two, and if rookie Ryan Mundy can beat out Tyrone Carter as a backup safety.

"One of the things we've learned around here and I've learned in this business," Tomlin said, "is that if a man has a helmet and is invited to camp, he has an opportunity."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on July 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Rooneys trying to do what's right for their families

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Art Rooney waves to fans at Three Rivers Stadium the week before the Steelers clinched the first NFL Division title, December 13, 1972.

The saddest part of the potential sale of the Steelers isn't that it could take control of the team out of Rooney hands for the first time in more than 75 years.

The saddest part is that the four younger Rooney brothers -- four honest, decent men -- are being vilified for being soulless, greedy money-grabbers because they are considering selling their shares of the franchise to outside interests instead of to their older brother and team chairman, Dan, because they believe it's the right thing to do for their children and grandchildren.

That is sad beyond words.

"I wonder what [others] would do if they had large families and this was happening to them," Tim Rooney wrote in an e-mail interview last week. "We love our brother and his family, but we can't ignore our own."

Can you blame them?

That's right, I forgot, many of you are blaming them.

You're ridiculous.

You would look out for your own, too.

I almost feel sorry for the Rooney brothers because they clearly don't want to sell. They are considering doing so only because the NFL says they can't continue to own the team and their gambling interests at the family race tracks and that one controlling partner must own at least 30 percent of the team's stock. Although Dan Rooney has run the franchise since the death of his father, team patriarch Art Rooney Sr., in 1988, he and his brothers each own 16 percent, the other 20 percent owned by the family of the late John McGinley Sr.

There also is time pressure on a potential sale because of concerns by at least some of the brothers that, if Barack Obama becomes president in November, he will make changes to the tax code that would adversely impact the brothers' children's inheritance.

"The perfect storm," one of the brothers, Art Jr., called it.

Except that things are not so perfect.

"At one of our meetings, Dan asked me what I was mad at," Rooney Jr. said. "I told him I was mad at the situation. I hate it."

Associated Press file photo

From left, Art Rooney Sr., Art Rooney Jr. and Dan Rooney pose with their three Vince Lombardi trophies in 1978.


Anyone who knows Rooney Jr. knows why. Football and the Steelers have been the biggest parts of his life, family aside. He played a big part in the Steelers' Super Bowl success in the 1970s as the team's personnel director before he was fired by his brother, Dan, in 1986. His South Hills office, where he oversees the family's real-estate interests, is a shrine to the Steelers and, more so, to his father. He's proud that his new book -- "Ruanaidh, The Story Of Art Rooney And His Clan," which is a terrific read -- has been described as "a love letter from a son to his father."

"My dad died going on 20 years ago, and there's not a day that I don't still think about him," Rooney Jr. said. " 'What would he think? Am I doing the right thing?'

"But this sale thing? There's unbelievable pressure with this."

Tim Rooney wrote it's just as hard on him and his family.

Presumably, it's also hard on the other brothers, Pat and John, who declined a request to be interviewed.

Certainly, it's hard on Dan Rooney, who turned 76 a week ago and is fighting to keep control of the franchise. As the oldest of the five Rooney boys, he was designated by Rooney Sr. to take over the team and has been, arguably, the best owner in sports for nearly two decades. Now, he has designated his oldest son, Art II, to be the heir apparent, made him team president and given him much control of the organization.

The problem is that Dan Rooney doesn't have the money to buy out his brothers. The Steelers have been valued at somewhere between $800 million and $1.2 billion. Dan Rooney's initial bid to the brothers was for far less than market value. It's pretty safe to assume the brothers weren't thrilled about being lowballed.

"He said he wanted the team for his son," Rooney Jr. said. "We understand that, and that's all well and good. We all love Artie. But what about our sons?"

It's still possible Dan Rooney could line up investors and buy his brothers' stock. That would greatly ease the fears of Steelers fans, who are afraid of change and want to see him remain in charge.

"Sure, that could happen," Rooney Jr. said. "But I'll say this -- Dan can bring in three or four billionaires, but he will never have better cooperation from his partners than he had with his brothers and the McGinleys. Who's to say the new guys aren't going to want to be involved? We never cared about that. We gave Dan everything he wanted. Even after my problems with him, I never had any worries about him running the team. He's a Hall of Famer, and he deserves to be a Hall of Famer."

Post-Gazette

Dan Rooney, left, with father Art Sr. in the Steelers' offices in 1986.


There's also that possibility that the Steelers could be sold to an outside party. "There's a real shot of that," Rooney Jr. said. New York hedge fund billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller -- chairman of Pittsburgh's Duquesne Capital Management -- appears to be the most likely buyer at this point.

Tim Rooney is preparing for a sad ending, no matter how a sale goes down.

"I have no concern that the Steelers will suffer as a franchise if sold," he wrote in his e-mail. "I have concerns that the Rooney family will suffer."

Asked to elaborate, Tim Rooney wrote, "The reason I said the Rooneys would suffer from the sale more than the city or the team is because of our emotional involvement. There has not been a second in my life [or] in my two younger brothers' [lives] that we have not owned or have been the sons of the owner of the team. If Steelers fans think they are big fans, what do they think it would be like to be the owners? We will miss our involvement greatly and so will our children and grandchildren."

Does that sound like a villain to you?

The younger Rooney brothers aren't villains.

They're no different than Dan Rooney, really.

They're just trying to do what's right for their families.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on July 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Bay: Happy to stay in the 'burgh

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jason Bay swings for a solo home run in the ninth inning against the Houston Astros in a baseball game Monday, July 21, 2008 in Houston. The Pirates won 9-3. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Though it's rarely been considered an occupational hazard, that sure doesn't mean it's not hazardous, so, yes, Jason Bay might actually have hit a baseball too hard this week.
Too hard. Too well. Too drop dead perfectly.

And worst of all, too all that to keep it inconspicuous.

This was Monday night in Houston, with the Pirates down a run in the ninth against 6-foot-4, 260-pound Astros hammer Jose Valverde. Interrupting perhaps a mental scroll of his save-celebrating macho gestures, Valverde sent Bay a fastball that flashed onto Minute Maid Park's heat-sensing technologies at a smoke-trailing 98 miles per hour.

Ninety-eight?

Bay murdered it.

High and so deep toward the extreme back yard in left center that you knew no general manager in baseball still desperate to fuel a contending offense could watch that highlight without thinking, "We've gotta have that guy."

Thursday night, Bay launched a shaggy breaking pitch from San Diego's Clay Hensley on a 415-foot arc to North Side Notchville for his 22nd homer, his third in four games, and his 15th RBI in 10. He may have been this hot before, but has he ever been this coveted?

"That's part of the game, part of the game that's not that productive to think about," Bay said in a deserted Pirates locker room as the trade deadline Thursday walked into plain sight. "I think for them to give me up, they'd have to be beyond overwhelmed. I don't know if there's anyone out there who would make that happen."

The trade of Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte Friday night will bring a portion of the template of young talent that makes for more hopeful baseball in the long term, but the kind of trade that would actually accelerate this whole process might have to include the left fielder.

"I'd be heartbroken," Bay said. "Other than my little cup of coffee with San Diego [three games in 2003], this the only thing I've known. My wife and I have a house here and, you know, some guys are from St. Louis and they want to play in the Midwest, some guys are like, 'I want to play in New York.'

"But I don't have anywhere that I want to or have to play.

"This is where I want to play."

This is Bay's fifth full summer of dubious Pittsburgh baseball, and only once has the franchise managed to put a team around him that could win even 70 games. Bay's maintained an easy dignity throughout, and you'd imagine a player of his accomplishments who actually wants to play here could stay as long as he pleases. But the Pirates are so desperate to pull out of a 16-year death spiral that the smell of something really sweet in the trade market might prove irresistible. In their situation, it's not difficult to think you're being overwhelmed by a possible trade when you're really only being whelmed, or perhaps even underwhelmed.

Jason Bay, right, is greeted by teammates Ryan Doumit, left, and Nate McLouth, center, after hitting a fourth inning home run off San Diego Padres pitcher Clay Hensley in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, July 24, 2008.
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)


Oakland seems hottest among a group of contenders with intense interest in Bay, some of whom have indicated that the Pirates simply want too much.

If that's true, it probably reflects favorably on the Pirates' new administration, which can't help but notice that No. 38, aside from being durable, professional and even marketable, catches all the balls that ought to be caught, takes all the bases that should be taken and crushes most of the pitches that deserved to be crushed.

To be clear, you don't exactly have to wear out your googlers looking for spirited criticism of Jason Raymond Bay, and some of it might be sourced to this column, which has mentioned that Bay sometimes seems as content to be good as he is capable of being great. Or did I not say that out loud?

But I think most of us have come to genuinely admire Bay's earnest concentration within what is the baseball equivalent of some subterranean mine fire. With that majestic Monday homer, Bay became only the fourth player in the franchise's 122-year history to hit 20 homers in five or more consecutive seasons, quietly taking his place in the short queue behind Willie Stargell (1964-76), Ralph Kiner (1946-52), and Frank Thomas (1953-58). The jack Thursday was Bay's 139th as a Pirate, moving him past Bill Mazeroski in the club's record book.

With the baseball season hereabouts unofficially ending today (the Steelers report to Latrobe at 4 p.m.), it would be a shame if the next time most fans looked at the Pirates with real interest they'd find the club missing its reliable left fielder.

"My wife asks me what might happen," he said. "I tell her I just can't see myself in another uniform. I know that it might happen someday. But, mostly, I just discount the possibility. That's the way I deal with it."

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283. More articles by this author
First published on July 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pirates finalize trade

By The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/pirates/
Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pirates' Xavier Nady signs autographs before Thursday, July 24's game against the San Diego Padres at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review


The Pirates and New York Yankees this morning reworked and finalized their six-player trade, which sent right fielder Xavier Nady and reliever Damaso Marte to New York.

The Pirates will receive four minor leaguers -- Double-A outfielder Jose Tabata and Triple-A pitchers Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen.

"The Pirates are excited to add four quality players to our system," general manager Neal Huntington said in a prepared statement. "With Karstens, McCutchen and Olendorf, we were able to add three quality starting pitchers to our system. With Tabata, we added a talented young outfield prospect who has all of the tools to become a member of what we believe will be an athletic and productive outfield."

Karstens and McCutchen were selected from a list of players the Yankees gave the Pirates. The list also included AA pitchers George Kontos and Phil Coke, but the Pirates opted for the two right-handers, Karstens and McCutchen, who are closer to the majors.

Tabata and Ohlendorf were the centerpieces of the trade, which was set in motion Friday night.

McCutchen, 25, was a combined 8-9 with a 3.14 ERA in Double- and Triple-A this season. He was suspended 50 games in 2006 for using a performance-enhancing substance. He's a hard thrower and could project as a late-inning reliever or closer.

Karstens, 25, made a total of 15 appearances for the Yankees in 2006 and '07, and went 3-5 with a 5.65 ERA. A starter, he has been prone to injuries the past two years. This season, he is 6-4 with a 3.80 ERA in 12 starts at Triple-A. His most effective role might be in long relief.

PIRATE BOOTY

TRADE GIVES YANKS TREASURE CHEST

By Joel Sherman
New York Post
http://www.nypost.com/
July 26, 2008


This is a 2007 file photo of Xavier Nady of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. The Pirates pulled Nady after the first inning Friday night, July 25, 2008, and announced they agreed to a trade involving the outfielder and reliever Damaso Marte.
(AP Photo/Al Behrman,file)


BOSTON - Pittsburgh received four prospects, but the pirates were the Yankees. Their trade for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte rose to the level of thievery.

An official from an AL team in playoff contention with the Yankees said: "It is a good deal for the New York Yankees. They filled needs without giving up anything that will hurt them."

Another executive from an AL contender said bluntly, "The Pirates took a bag of [bleep] quantity."

The Yanks did not get stars in this trade, but they did get supplemental parts that should greatly address deficiencies. Thus, the Yanks found a way in late July to honor both agendas they are following these days: Go for a championship every year, but do so without bankrupting the farm system.

The Yanks are a stronger playoff contender today, and did no real harm to any future Yankee squad.

The Yankees had three glaring needs when they awoke yesterday: Lefty relief, a righty corner outfield bat and a starting pitcher. Before their opener at Fenway was even complete, they had solved two of the shortcomings. By the time tomorrow night's game comes around, the Yanks could start Nady against lefty stalwart Jon Lester and use Marte to go after David Ortiz and J.D. Drew.

And they are still heavily involved in discussions with Seattle for lefty starter Jarrod Washburn with an eye on upgrading a dubious rotation back end of Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson.

This is a Feb. 24, 2008, file photo of Damaso Marte of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. The Pirates pulled Xavier Nady after the first inning Friday night, July 25, 2008, and announced they agreed to a trade involving the outfielder and reliever Marte.
(AP Photo/Al Behrman, file)


The four players dealt were outfielder Jose Tabata, and pitchers George Kontos, Ross OhlendorfRoss Ohlendorf and Phil Coke. Not long ago Tabata was considered the Yanks' top prospect, but he has regressed as a player while also encountering off-the-field issues. There is no doubt his Double-A outfield mate, Austin Jackson, had moved well beyond him as a prospect and part of the Yankees' future.

The Yanks' ability to deal three pitchers speaks well of GM Brian Cashman's obsession the past three years in building an arms inventory. Ohlendorf, Kontos and the lefty Coke all have nice arms, but were well down on the organizational depth chart with no clear entry point any time soon onto the big-league roster.

The Pirates had been demanding big talent for Nady and Marte, and seemingly wound up collecting quantity over top quality. As an NL talent evaluator said, "The Yankees did well. They gave up some depth, but not any star power."

Obviously, the Pirates see Tabata, 20 next month, as a reclamation project worth taking, seeing his makeup issues as correctable. They have long liked Ohlendorf. Coke is 26, but an official from another team said Pittsburgh really believes he has blossomed this year. And another NL executive said, "We think Kontos is pretty good."

Still, there is a lot of projection in these pieces when Pittsburgh was a seller in a market that seemed to favor the sellers. An official from a team interested in Nady flatly said his club offered better quality, but Pittsburgh was too concerned with getting quantity.

For the Yanks, Nady and Marte fill specific needs now and, perhaps, the future. Nady was having a career year hitting .330 with 13 homers and 57 RBIs. It is hard to find a scout who thinks he is really that good. But his history of hitting lefties well, including .313 this year, raises his value to the Yanks. That he is not a free agent until after the 2009 season means the Yanks can either deal him again in the offseason or perhaps use him to replace Bobby Abreu, who is a free agent.

Unlike Nady, who played with the Mets and handled New York well, there is concern about how Marte will handle a big city. Also, he has not been quite as dominant against lefties (.255 batting average) as he had over the previous three years (.206). Still, the Yanks have no lefty in the pen now and Marte will help with matchups. Plus, he has a $6 million option for next year, so the Yanks can bring him back, renegotiate or let him go to free agency and recoup two draft picks.

Overall, the Yanks are better today without being worse tomorrow. As trades go that is a total victory.

joel.sherman@nypost.com

Pirates target future

By Bob Smizik,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com
Saturday, July 26, 2008

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Xavier Nady bats against the Padres Thursday at PNC Park.

The Pirates weakened their offense and just about crippled their bullpen in a trade last night with the New York Yankees that showed just how desperate general manager Neal Huntington was to improve the team's pitching depth. It was a trade that virtually ended any hope the team had of a winning record this season and showed management is more concerned with 2009 and beyond.

Outfielder Xavier Nady, who led the team with a .330 batting average and was third in home runs and RBIs, and left-handed reliever Damaso Marte, who had inherited the closer's role in the absence of injured Matt Capps, were dealt to the Yankees for three pitchers and a highly regarded outfield prospect.

Nady started in right field last night in a game the Pirates lost to the San Diego Padres, 6-5, but was pulled after one inning.

The pitchers the Yankees sent did not include Ian Kennedy, who was thought to be available and was more highly regarded than the ones the Pirates received.

The deal is certain to have a stunning effect in the Pirates' clubhouse where the players were hoping Huntington would keep the team's surprisingly potent offense together.

Nady was available because he is eligible for free agency after the 2009 season and the Pirates either didn't want to sign him to a long-term deal or felt, as a client of agent Scott Boras, he would not be amenable to one. Marte's contract expires after this season. The Pirates had a $6 million option for 2009, which they were not going to exercise.

In return, the Pirates received one pitcher off the Yankees' Class AAA roster, and three players, two pitchers and an outfielder, from their Class AA Trenton minor league club.

The pitchers were right-hander Ross Ohlendorf, who will be 26 next month, and was 0-1 with a 6.53 earned run average in 25 games, all in relief, with the Yankees before being sent to the minors; left-hander Phil Coke, 26, who was 9-4 with a 2.60 ERA for Class AA Trenton; and right-hander George Kontos, 23, who was 3-9 as a starter for Trenton, but with a respectable 3.77 ERA for a team that was 25 games over .500.

Ohlendorf and Kontos are the type of power pitchers Huntington has been attempting to add to the Pirates. Ohlendorf is reported to throw a fastball that reached 97 mph. Kontos is said to throw in the mid-90s.

The likely key to the deal for the Pirates is outfielder Jose Tabata, a native of Venezuela who was playing at the Class AA level, although he won't be 20 until next month. Tabata was ranked as the Yankees' third-best prospect, according to Baseball America, a leading authority on minor league baseball. He was batting .248 with three homers and 36 RBIs.

Torre Tyson, a one-time batting coach in the Yankees' system but now the manager of the Class A Charleston Riverdogs, had this to say about Tabata to the New York Times:

"He thinks he belongs in the big leagues and he's ready for it. There's confidence and there's cockiness, and he's got plenty of both. He reminds me of Robinson Cano [the Yankees second baseman] when he was in the minor leagues. He just carries himself like a major leaguer.

"A lot of people don't like to play against him because he carries himself like he already is Manny Ramirez. But he thinks he's the best guy out there, and he goes out and proves it most of the time."

The outfielder Huntington probably had his eye on was Austin Jackson, 21, the Yankees No. 2 prospect, who hits with more power than Tabata and is better defensively. Austin was batting .298 with nine homers and 57 RBIs, which was eighth best in the Eastern League.

The Pirates have obvious replacement for Nady in the outfield in veterans Jason Michaels and Doug Mientkiewicz, although neither is the offensive force that Nady is. It's possible the team might bring up top prospect Andrew McCutchen, who was batting .280 with nine homers at Class AAA Indianapolis.

There is no clear-cut replacement for Marte, who had five saves and was regarded as one of the best left-handed relievers in the National League. The closer's role likely will fall to left-hander John Grabow and right-hander Tyler Yates until Capps returns. Neither has much experience as a closer.

The deal correctly will be viewed as a big win for the Yankees. They received two players who will be of immediate help as they try to overtake Tampa Bay and Boston in the American League East.

The Pirates received no such dividends, but it was clear they were not thinking about 2008. Ohlendorf likely will be added to the bullpen, but, based on what he has done for the Yankees this year, that doesn't look like much of an upgrade. He has a high ceiling, though. He was one of the prospects the Yankees insisted on when they traded Randy Johnson to Arizona in January 2007.

Considering the age of Tabata, it might be years before the Pirates learn how much this deal will help them. For the moment, though, with this trade they are a considerably weaker team and the Yankees are a considerably stronger team.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.
More articles by this author
First published on July 26, 2008 at 12:00 am

Friday, July 25, 2008

Therrien's new deal refreshing

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com
Friday, July 25, 2008

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Penguins head coach Michel Therrien giving instruction during team workouts at the Mellon Arena.


My money is on Michel Therrien. It's been on Therrien since he took the Penguins coaching job in December 2005 and immediately showed he wasn't afraid to rattle the cages to shake the losers he inherited out of their country club ways. No matter what, the players were going to do it Therrien's way. It's no coincidence they soon turned into winners, big winners, nearly Stanley Cup winners last season.

Now, I'm betting Therrien will break one of the most astonishing records in Pittsburgh sports history.

I'm betting Therrien will become the first coach in Penguins history -- 41 years and counting -- to start and finish four consecutive seasons.

Yes, I know I'm going far out on a limb.

"I'm halfway there," Therrien said late last season, grinning.

The topic really wasn't so funny at the time. The odds still seemed very much against Therrien, even though the Penguins had remarkable success in his first two full seasons. There was widespread speculation that the team needed to win at least a round or two in the playoffs for him to keep his job.

It wasn't hard to believe considering the Penguins' abysmal history with coaches. Like most NHL teams, they have treated their coaches with little respect. It's a hockey thing, you know? Chuck Noll would have lasted three seasons with the Penguins, if that. Bill Cowher might have made two. The Steelers the Penguins are not.

Eddie Johnston nearly had a four-year run but was replaced late in the 1996-97 season by general manager Craig Patrick. In Patrick's nearly 17 years with the team, he had nine coaches, not counting the two stints he did behind the bench himself. That qualifies as abysmal, doesn't it?

That's why it was so refreshing to see Therrien get a big new contract last week. A year ago, after he had led the Penguins to a 47-point improvement and their first playoff spot in six years, general manager Ray Shero gave him just a one-year extension. This time, after the team made it to the Cup final, Shero tore up the one year remaining on Therrien's contract and gave him three years at around $1 million per season.

Now, finally, the odds are on Therrien's side. He's still not a lock to get through the next two seasons; there will be extraordinary pressure on him and the team considering the expectations the run to the Cup final generated. But at least he has a shot because of the commitment from management.

Talk about a pleasant surprise.

There were reports in the Canadian press after last season that Therrien was hated in his locker room. The stories mentioned defenseman Brooks Orpik and young center Jordan Staal as being anti-Therrien. Team owner Mario Lemieux also was listed.

That speculation also was easy to believe, especially the Lemieux inclusion. I'm not sure he has ever met a coach he respected. That can be a problem for truly great athletes.

But any animosity toward Therrien -- real or otherwise -- didn't stop Shero from doing the right thing, although it's safe to say Lemieux signed off on Therrien's new contract.

Shero, who has done a terrific job since replacing Patrick, is all about rewarding excellence. How could Shero look in the mirror if he didn't reward Therrien?

I understand Therrien is in a nice spot. His team is loaded with great young talent. It also helps that Sidney Crosby has his back. When the captain and best player buys into your system and is the team's hardest worker, the other players have little choice but to follow.

But Therrien also has contributed greatly to the Penguins' success. It's not just the discipline he instilled in a team that had been soft. It's the way he has demanded and received defensive accountability, no easy task with a lot of star players. Those are two huge reasons the Penguins played for the Cup last season and will be a strong contender next season.

It should be noted that the players Therrien has treated with the toughest love have become better players. Orpik might not like the boss much, but he's at the top of that list. So are goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and, to a lesser extent, defenseman Ryan Whitney.

Isn't coaching supposed to be about making your players better?

It also should be pointed out that Orpik and Fleury signed big deals with the Penguins this summer, Orpik turning down more as a free agent and Fleury signing for seven years. Center Evgeni Malkin, who reportedly wasn't happy with Therrien about his use on the power play during the playoffs, also took less to sign a new five-year contract.

I'm thinking the players like playing here, like winning and enjoy their teammates, sure. But I'm also thinking they've come to grips with playing for Therrien and maybe even realize he's helped them to become better players on a better team.

Orpik said it best when he said he doesn't have to love his coach to play hard and play well for him.

The Penguins play hard and play well for Therrien.

His new contract is a great thing for the franchise.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on July 25, 2008 at 12:00 am

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tomlin accepts his media chores

He's not Noll or Cowher, but he's not totally illuminating, either

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Mike Tomlin missed these "warm and fuzzy get-togethers" with the media.


For what was either his final pre-camp news conference or his first formal media entanglement of the new Steelers season, depending on where you're stranded in the NFL's perpetual news cycle, Mike Tomlin chose for his background vibe a breezy geniality.

"I'm excited to be here," the second-year coach smiled yesterday, "I missed these warm and fuzzy get-togethers we all have."

As it happens, the Pittsburgh media has come to expect more from Tomlin than a flipping of the worn out warm-and-fuzzy construction. In fact, it's Tomlin's consistent linguistic effort that frames the dynamic between the young coach and his habitual inquisitors.

I loved when he broke out "thoughtfully non-rhythmic" last year to describe his approach to training-camp schedules, and again he flashed his promising aptitude yesterday when, several minutes in, he described former first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons as having played some "sub package linebacker football" in his rookie season.

Tomlin's consistent effort in his media dealings doesn't necessarily result in the public knowing any more about the why-and-how of backstage Steelers culture than it did during the Bill Cowher or Chuck Noll administrations, but, unlike his decorated predecessors, Tomlin can at least be led into a news conference without appearing as if he's going to a colonoscopy.

One year deep in his working rhythms, the head coach plans no tempo changes with the media.

"I was surprised by the volume of some of the [media] responsibilities," he admitted. "But that's never been my focus, and I always just thought of it as one of the things that comes with the job. I enjoy developing this coaching staff, formulating a plan to win, presenting that plan to the players, and helping them grow collectively and individually. Some of the other things that come with that are necessary evils, but some are pleasant. But, overall, it's fun. I enjoy it."

In his 10-6, AFC North championship inaugural season, Tomlin appeared to be bumped off stride by the media just once, and that was only because Anthony Smith, bored after having mastered the safety position, plunged into the prediction game with a guarantee of victory at New England. Unbeaten New England.

The head coach was nearly incredulous that we'd run with a combustible opinion from a player so young and, uh, callow, but the reality is that no one need provide evidence of good judgment to communicate with the media. Thank God. For us to consider the source in such situations and weigh the value of observations appropriately before dissemination would be dangerously close to logical and even responsible. This isn't to suggest Tomlin was himself callow in that situation, but logic and responsibility are two passengers that got booted off the sports media train somewhere around 1984.

For most of his first full media lap then, Tomlin has been crisp, professional, patient, reasonably accommodating and even illuminating up to a point where he's comfortable, which, while no synonym for full disclosure, still represents a welcome change from the aforementioned administrations.

Cowher arrived at the job in the midst of a newspaper strike, not experiencing the media at full working temperature until nearly a year later and never growing fully comfortable in media matters. His instant success gave him a pronounced swagger, bringing with it a sharp impatience with questions he thought less than perceptive. By his final year, he had cut his assistants off from the media and his press sessions were clipped and of little evident purpose to either party.

Noll had a barely concealed contempt for the media, which he considered an unregulated delivery system of misinformation that, if not a verifiable impediment to winning, certainly couldn't help him. Still, he had a huge intellect and a blistering wit that commanded attention.

Once, at training camp, he was asked if a particular player would soon be returning from an injury. "Well, doctors say it would take an average person six weeks to recover from that," Noll said, "and Chris fits into that category."

Tomlin has not reached the point in his media dealings that he's answering just to answer and, if that answer camouflages the truth, so much the better. The best evidence yet might have come yesterday when he fielded questions about the Rooney ownership drama straight on, saying that it is an issue, that it is a potential distraction, and that it's up to him and the team to compartmentalize it properly.

Most coaches either ignore or publicly minimize even perceived mental obstacles, but Tomlin did his best to reveal his feelings about it, restating his trust in the Rooneys and, at the same time, acknowledging the existence of potentially destabilizing karma.

With what many imagine will be continued success, Tomlin's media posture could well become more guarded, a tradeoff most fans wouldn't exactly lament. But, for the moment, the veiled sarcasm of warm and fuzzy will do.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on July 24, 2008 at 12:00 am

Mientkiewicz, Pirates keep on kicking

His four hits bring 8-7 victory, three-game sweep of Astros

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Nate McLouth slides in with the Pirates' first run yesterday in their four-run first, jump-starting an 8-7 win and a three-game sweep of the Astros in Houston. It caps a road trip that began horrendously with four losses in Colorado.

HOUSTON -- It was late Sunday afternoon in Denver, right after the Pirates had been flushed away in four by the Colorado Rockies, that Doug Mientkiewicz spoke in an otherwise silent clubhouse.

"Look, we got our butts kicked," he said at the time. "But it's how you respond to situations like this that test what you're made of. We've got to play better, period."

So, they did, with a kick or two of their own.

And, as has happened so often, it was Mientkiewicz kicking harder than most in an 8-7 victory that brought a three-game sweep of the Houston Astros yesterday at Minute Maid Park: He matched a career high with four hits, reached base all five times up, doubled in one run and singled in the go-ahead run.

For good measure, he also took out Houston second baseman Kazuo Matsui with a hard slide that allowed the eighth run to cross.

"Doug really sparked us," manager John Russell said. "And he's done that a lot."

The sweep brought the Pirates' first three-game winning streak since they won six in a row May 6-12 and, just as important, it washed away the sting of Denver.

"As bad as we did in Colorado, to turn around and take these three was important," Mientkiewicz said.

So was the sweep, perhaps, only the third all year and the first since taking three from the San Francisco Giants May 6-8.

"Early in the year, it seemed like we'd win two and then just kind of throw our hats out there for the third one," Mientkiewicz said. "Today, I thought we did a good job of jumping on the guy early, and we didn't stop."

Jason Bay, left, and Freddy Sanchez head to the dugout after scoring on Bay's two-run home run in the first inning of the Pirates 8-7 win over the Houston Astros in a baseball game Wednesday, July 23, 2008 in Houston.
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)


The Pirates chased Houston's Brian Moehler with six runs through 2 1/3 innings, but they hardly could afford to stop because Ian Snell fared no better: He lasted three innings for his shortest start in a season full of those, charged with five runs on six hits and three walks.

Again, Snell's stuff was fine, as seen through six strikeouts and 95-mph heat. But the control took a step backward, reflected in the abysmal pitch count of 85.

"He just didn't have the command," Russell said.

Snell was harder on himself than usual.

"I let the game speed up on me," he said. "I wasn't really focused. I was out there, just trying to throw the ball wherever."

Snell went so far as to raise -- on his own -- the possibility of a demotion to the minors, even though he is out of options.

"Sometimes, I don't even feel like I deserve to be up here, which is funny because I don't let stuff bother me. But that's how I feel sometimes. Sometimes, I feel like I let these guys down."

The Pirates bolted to a 4-0 lead in the first, including Jason Bay's 21st home run, a two-run shot to left field that matched his home run total for all of 2007. It also tied Bill Mazeroski for eighth on the franchise's all-time list.

Snell gave three runs right back in the bottom half, but he still exited with a 6-5 lead. T.J. Beam gave up another in the fourth, and that 6-6 tie would hold until the Pirates' seventh.

Ryan Doumit connects for a sacrifice fly out to score Nate McLouth from third base in the first inning against the Houston Astros in a baseball game Wednesday, July 23, 2008 in Houston.
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)


The reason for that was superb relief from Franquelis Osoria and John Grabow.

Osoria, the most beleaguered of the Pirates' bullpen, reversed roles and put out the fire rather than igniting one with perfect fifth and sixth innings.

"My sinker is back," he said.

He has made three consecutive scoreless appearances after getting shelled for weeks.

In the seventh, the Pirates pecked away at Geoff Geary, getting singles by Ryan Doumit and Xavier Nady, plus a walk to Adam LaRoche to load the bases with one out for Mientkiewicz. He ripped his fourth hit through the right side for one run.

So much for that 1-for-13 spell.

"Don't ask me how I did that," Mientkiewicz said. "Coming from Colorado, I felt terrible."

He did get some advice from hitting coach Don Long over the weekend about keeping his weight back.

"Dumb as I am, it took me three days to figure it out."

Jason Michaels pinch-hit next, and it looked as if he would hit into a 6-4-3 double play, but Mientkiewicz's slide into Matsui -- he took out his legs with enough force that Houston's trainer had to come out briefly -- allowed Nady's touching home to count, and it was 8-6.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Doug Mientkiewicz goes in hard against Houston second baseman Kaz Matsui in an effort to break up a double play in the seventh inning yesterday.


Tyler Yates gave up one in the bottom half, but Grabow bailed him out by stranding two in fine fashion, getting lazy flyouts from Houston's finest, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee.

Grabow put up a zero in the eighth, and Damaso Marte finished it off for his fifth save.

The Pirates' 14-hit output included two each for Sanchez, whose series included eight hits and seven RBIs; Nady, whose hitting streak is at 12; and LaRoche, who is going so well that even his outs are rockets.

With that, the Pirates climbed past Houston out of last place, and that seemed to rankle Berkman, who called the Astros a "bad team" and apparently, belittled their opponent in the process.

"What can you say?" Berkman said. "We were just swept by the Pirates when we were trying to get back to respectability."

The Pirates face another last-place team, the San Diego Padres, tonight at PNC Park.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.
First published on July 24, 2008 at 12:00 am


Box score
Statistics
Standings

Today

Game: Pirates vs. San Diego Padres, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

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

Pitching: RHP Yoslan Herrera (0-1, 19.50) vs. RHP Clay Hensley (1-0, 0.00).

Key matchup: Everyone vs. the top two in San Diego's order: Leadoff man Scott Hairston is batting .413 in July, and rookie Edgar Gonzalez .333.

Of note: The last-place Padres are the anti-Pirates when it comes to comebacks. They had been 0-53 when trailing after eight innings before finally pulling one out Tuesday. The Pirates are 5-49 and have 24 comeback victories.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Littlefield's plague is pervasive

By Bob Smizik
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
GM Dave Littlefield welcomes first-round pick Daniel Moskos to the fold at a news conference at PNC Park on July 17th, 2007.

The Pirates won another game last night, beating the Houston Astros, 8-2, but that doesn't alter their immediate or distant future. This is a franchise in serious trouble.

The bad news for this franchise -- which is eight games below. 500 and appears headed for its 16th consecutive losing season -- is this: It's going to get worse, much worse, before it gets better -- if it ever gets better.

The Pirates should double general manager Neal Huntington's salary immediately. He has taken on one of the most difficult jobs in the history of baseball, and we say that with no attempt at exaggeration. It's true, the Philadelphia Phillies lost for 16 consecutive seasons from 1933-48. But in the final year of that infamous streak, they were two seasons away from the World Series.

The Pirates are not two seasons away from the World Series. More like two decades -- if ever.

At the risk of being charged with pouring it on, we'll remind everyone that the man most responsible for this mess is Dave Littlefield, who served as general manager from July 2001 until late last season. But Littlefield does not deserve all the blame. Just a half-step behind him are his director of player development, Brian Graham, and his scouting director, Ed Creech.
The scouting and the developing of players during the Littlefield-Graham-Creech era were uncomprehendingly bad. Those three might have done better by throwing darts at the draft board or having people off the street coach and manage their minor league teams.

The inability of Littlefield, Graham and Creech, along with their associates -- many of whom still work for the Pirates -- to draft talented players and develop them well is what has done this franchise in and what will continue to do so in the years ahead.

The list of horrendous major league deals cooked up by Littlefield and his associates is well known. What is less known is the bumbling and stumbling that took place in early June every year in the amateur draft.
Here's an example of how Littlefield left the franchise barren of talent: When injuries this season sidelined starting pitchers, manager John Russell has been forced to use the likes of John Van Benschoten, Yoslan Herrera, Jimmy Barthmaier and Ty Taubenheim. Combined they have four major league wins -- and might not get another.

Compare this bare cupboard to what Littlefield inherited. In his first full season, 2002, behind his five-man rotation, the following pitchers were used as starters: Bronson Arroyo, Salomon Torres, Ron Villone, Joe Beimel and Dave Williams. All except Williams are still pitching in the majors.
Because of this run of drafting and development incompetence, there is next to nothing in the minor leagues. The only truly outstanding prospect is Andrew McCutchen, the No. 1 draft choice in 2005 who, by most accounts, will be a major league star.

The only Littlefield-drafted players to make an appreciable mark on the major league level are Paul Maholm, Matt Capps and Tom Gorzelanny, who recently was demoted after a terrible first half of the season.

Most of the other Pirates who came up through the team's minor league system were drafted and/or developed by Littlefield's predecessor, Cam Bonifay. Those players include Ryan Doumit, Nate McLouth, Jose Bautista, Ian Snell, Zach Duke and John Grabow. Jack Wilson was acquired in a trade during the Bonifay era.

The first five picks of the Littlefield era in the 2002 draft were Bryan Bullington, Blair Johnson, Taber Lee, Wardell Starling and Alex Hart. That's pretty much the story of all his drafts, with most of the first five picks having already failed or on the road to failure.

That's what makes Huntington's job so difficult. There is no organizational depth. Some suggest trading all of the veterans -- Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche and Wilson -- who might fetch decent prospects. In some circumstances, that might be a reasonable strategy. But with no minor league talent, that's not a strategy Huntington can afford. If he employed it, the Pirates would lose 100 games next year and probably the year after, and PNC Park would become a ghost town.

It would be unfair to call the Pirates' situation hopeless. But it would be correct to call it almost hopeless.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author
First published on July 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

Sanchez savors inside-the-park HR

By Rob Biertempfel
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Pirates' Freddie Sanchez flies into home on an inside-the-park, three-run homer in the ninth inning of the Pirates' 9-3 win over the Houston Astros Monday, July 21, 2008 in Houston. Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, left, covers the plate.
Pat Sullivan/Associated Press


HOUSTON -- As he rounded third base, his legs and lungs burning, the crowd screaming, Freddy Sanchez realized he had been in this spot before.

Last September, Sanchez tried to score on what would have been an inside-the-park grand slam against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. But the relay throw by Ryan Theriot was perfect, and Sanchez was out.

Monday night, Sanchez found himself buzzing around the bases again as the Houston Astros chased after the ball in the ninth inning.

"Remember last year against the Cubs?" Sanchez said later. "It was going through my head. I didn't want to get thrown out again."

Sanchez, in the fifth year of his career, owns 28 home runs. Some have been dramatic, such as the walk-off shot that snapped a franchise-worst 13-game losing skid in 2006.

Until Monday, they had all gone over the wall.

The Pirates had already hit two homers in the ninth inning -- Jason Bay's solo shot and Adam LaRoche's two-run blast -- to take a 5-3 lead. There were two outs and runners on first and second.

Sanchez launched a 1-0 pitch from lefty Tim Byrdak to right-center field. The ball hit near the screened portion of the outfield wall, in front of the bullpens.

"It's one of those funny bounces off those walls that they're making nowadays with the screens in them," Pirates manager John Russell said. "It hit the corner just right."

The ball caromed and rolled on the warning track toward right field. Outfielder Hunter Pence gave chase.

Third base coach Tony Beasley quickly sized up the play unfolding before him.

"When (Sanchez) hit it, he was running hard. That was the key," Beasley said. "It hit the wall and just shot out into no-man's land. I knew we were going to have a shot."

Beasley began whirling his arm, signaling, Go hard!

"Freddy touched third base and I thought he had a little energy left," Beasley said. "You don't get a chance to do it too often. I knew it was going to take a perfect throw to get him, so I figured, why not take a chance?"

Sanchez kept chugging, even though his tank was on empty.

"After I reached third, I was out of breath," Sanchez said. "I gave it all I had and the legs were dragging a little bit."

Kaz Matsui's relay throw was not as dead-eye as Theriot's had been.

"When I was sliding in head-first, I saw the ball go by," Sanchez said. "And I was like, 'Whew!' and just stayed there for a little bit."

It seemed like as good a time and place as any for Sanchez to get his breath ... and savor the feeling.

"It was an opportunity to do something rare and, fortunately, it worked out," Beasley said.

Inside information

Data about Pirates' inside-the-park home runs

Career leader: Tommy Leach, 35

Single-season (club): 26 in 1911

Single-season (player): Kiki Cuyler, 9 in 1925

Game (club): 3 on Sept. 2, 1911

Game (player): 2 (five times), last by Cuyler on Aug. 28, 1925

Oldest player: Honus Wagner, 42 years, 4 months on July 1, 1916

At PNC Park: 1, by Jack Wilson on July 2, 2004


Rob Biertempfel can be reached at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or 412-320-7811.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bay, LaRoche blasts revive Pirates' offense

Seven-run, three-homer ninth brings 9-3 toppling of Houston

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Jason Bay breaks his bat and gets a single in the second inning against the Astros last night in Houston.


HOUSTON -- The Pirates had insisted all this offense was no mirage, and they backed that up with a bang.

Three, actually.

They trailed Houston by one entering the ninth inning, but Jason Bay tied it with a monster home run, Adam LaRoche followed with a two-run shot, and Freddy Sanchez topped all that with a three-run, inside-the-park job in what stunningly transformed into a 9-3 rout last night at Minute Maid Park.

That snuffed a five-game losing streak and marked a 24th comeback victory, the fifth when trailing after eight innings.

It also brought an explosive end to an offensive drought -- nine runs in those four losses in Colorado after the All-Star break -- unlike any other this summer.

"We've believed in our offense all year," LaRoche said. "But still, that felt good. Really good."

Houston had a 3-2 lead, and the Pirates looked as if they would have yet another soft fade, having stranded six runners in the sixth through eighth innings, 12 in all. On top of that, the Astros' formidable closer, Jose Valverde, 25 of 30 in saves, had taken the mound.

With one out, Bay stepped into the box with a plan: Stay aggressive with the strike-throwing Valverde and time his way into the pitch he wanted.

He swung under the first fastball, took one for a ball, fouled one back, took another for a ball, fouled another off solidly, then took a sinker.

Hitting coach Don Long liked what he saw from the dugout.

"Jason got more comfortable with each pitch," Long recalled. "Got just under the one. Fouled off the next one hard to the right side. Then, when he never came close to offering at that sinker, I knew he was seeing the ball well and thought he would hit it pretty hard."

He did: Valverde smoked the full-count fastball at 98 mph, but it went out even harder, as Bay crushed it into the arched facade high above left field for his 20th home run, his fourth hit of the evening and, most important, a 3-3 tie.

Pittsburgh Pirates' John Van Benschoten delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Houston Astros in a baseball game Monday, July 21, 2008 in Houston.
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)


"He threw me some tough ones before that, and I was able to get one I could handle," Bay said.

Xavier Nady then lashed a single into left, and LaRoche drove a 96-mph fastball, up and over the outer corner, the other way for his 11th home run, and it was 5-3.

"When I'm not on, I have a tendency to try to pull that pitch," LaRoche said. "It's just a millisecond difference, but it's all the difference in the world."

LaRoche most definitely is on: His 2-for-4 night extended his tear to 25 for 59, a .429 clip.

A single by Jose Bautista, a walk by Jason Michaels and Jack Wilson's RBI single chased Valverde.

He blamed poor fastball command for his showing.

"It's not the first time, and it won't be the last," Valverde said. "But it's frustrating."

With two outs, Sanchez drove a Tim Byrdak slider off the angled fence in right-center, and the carom was violent enough that third base coach Tony Beasley waved Sanchez home even though the relay looked as if it would be in plenty of time. It zipped past catcher Brad Ausmus, though, and it was 9-3.

Sanchez had his second consecutive three-hit game, as well as four RBIs, and the home run was his sixth and the Pirates' first inside-the-park since Chris Duffy's June 8, 2007, at New York's Yankee Stadium.

The Pirates' first two runs also were generated by Sanchez: He singled in the third and scored by hustling on another aggressive Beasley wave on a Bay infield single. First baseman Lance Berkman noticed too late that Sanchez was sprinting home. In the fifth, Sanchez followed Nate McLouth's double with a single.

Pittsburgh Pirates' Freddie Sanchez races down the third base line on a three-run inside-the-park homer in the ninth inning as the Pirates beat the Houston Astros 9-3 in a baseball game Monday, July 21, 2008 in Houston.
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)


"I think I'm getting to where I want to be," Sanchez said. "I just wish it didn't take this long."

And how did he feel when he saw Beasley's wave?

"The legs were jiggling a little bit, but I made it."

The offense finished with 18 hits, seemingly swinging and swinging until something finally went right.

"It's a huge lift for us," manager John Russell said. "To come up with seven runs in the ninth off a closer like that, this is what the guys have been waiting for, I think."

Their impatience in that regard had shown earlier in the day.

On the flight from Denver to Houston Sunday night, Long went down the plane's aisle informing all players that there would be optional early batting practice the next afternoon. So, when he and Russell took to the field yesterday, they were pleasantly surprised when everyone showed up. Even the pitchers, who went to the outfield to shag flies.

Russell, in a rarity, did the pitching.

"It's a special group," he said beforehand. "They could get down about what happened this weekend, and it was pretty quiet on the plane coming here. But they're in great spirits. They want to get out of this."

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Second baseman Freddy Sanchez sits on the Astros' Lance Berkman after turning a double play in the second inning last night in Houston.


Pitching helped in this one, too.

John Van Benschoten finally showed traces of what has made him an effective Class AAA pitcher, limiting Houston to three runs -- two earned -- and six hits over five innings. He did walk four and could have thrown more strikes than 50 of 92 but, compared to previous outings, this one looked ...

"OK," Russell said. "We'd like to see him over the plate more, but he did well when he did throw strikes."

Mostly through 10 groundouts.

Van Benschoten, lugging a 9.77 ERA into this one, surely will get another start.

"It definitely feels good, especially with how it ended," he said. "I feel like I had to prove I belong here and that I can throw strikes here and get people out. I still can do better."

Best pitching of the night, though, was by John Grabow.

With the Pirates down, 3-2, in the sixth, Sean Burnett made a mess by giving up a single and two walks around one out. But Grabow bailed him out by fanning Berkman and getting Carlos Lee to pop up.

"It's not ideal, facing two of the game's best hitters in that situation," he said. "But we've all seen what our offense can do if you give them a chance."

Even Wilson had a chance to breathe a sigh of relief: His hitless streak was 0 for 19 before that single in the ninth.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.
First published on July 22, 2008 at 12:00 am



Pittsburgh Pirates' Adam LaRoche rounds the bases in front of Houston Astros third baseman Mark Loretta on a go-ahead two-run home run in the ninth inning in a baseball game Monday, July 21, 2008 in Houston. The Pirates won 9-3.
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)


Box score
Statistics
Standings

Today

Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 8:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (6-6, 4.10) vs. RHP Jack Cassel (1-0, 6.28).

Key matchup: Everyone vs. the journeyman Cassel, 27, who will be recalled from Class AAA Round Rock for his 11th major league start. One of his two career wins came with six scoreless innings against the Pirates Sept. 27, 2007, while with San Diego.

Of note: Houston has won eight in a row when the opponent starts a left-hander.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What if fans owned the Steelers?

By Joe Starkey
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/
Sunday, July 20, 2008

Too bad the people couldn't step in and solve this Steelers ownership dilemma.

The NFL prohibits public ownership of a team -- the Green Bay Packers being the lone, grandfathered-in exception -- but wouldn't it be something to see the hardest of hard-core Steelers fanatics running the franchise?

I'm talking about the gray-haired adults who roam the parking lots drunk at 9 a.m., decked in full football regalia and knocking back kielbasa links like Skittles.

Can you imagine?

We, the people of Stillers Nation, in order to form a more perfect franchise, establish AFC North supremacy, ensure free beer and no domestic tranquility whatsoever, provide for the Steel Curtain defense, promote general mayhem and secure the Vince Lombardi Trophy every single year for ourselves and our posteriors, er, posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Pix-burgh Stillers 'n at.

Here is our 40-part mission statement:

40. We shall provide free beer at Heinz Field.

39. We shall provide free beer at Heinz Field.

38. We shall provide free beer at Heinz Field.

37. We shall tear down Heinz Field and rebuild Three Rivers Stadium.

36. We shall provide free beer at Three Rivers Stadium.

35. We shall change the name of the Coca-Cola Great Hall to the IC Light Great Hall.

34. We shall hire Chuck Noll as head coach.

33. We shall hire Terry Bradshaw as quarterbacks coach.

32. We shall hire Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as wide receivers coaches.

31. We shall revert to the beloved block numerals on players' jerseys.

30. We shall petition the NFL to send the Baltimore Ravens back to Cleveland so we can beat the Browns four times a year.

29. We shall hire Greg Lloyd as head of community relations.

28. Donnie Iris shall sing the national anthem.

27. We shall not run scoreboard replays of the game in progress but rather a continuous loop of the Immaculate Reception.

26. We shall hire Franco Harris as running backs coach.

25. We shall overcome.

24. We shall hire Roy Gerela as kicking coach.

23. We shall hire Mean Joe Greene as defensive line coach.

22. We shall petition the NFL to allow us to gamble at the new North Side casino (Hey, they allowed the Rooneys to have gambling interests all these years; why not us?)

21. We shall hire Joey Porter as White House liaison.

20. We shall beat the living snot out of Steely McBeam and bar him from the stadium.

19. We shall invite Cliff Stoudt to a December game and pelt him with snowballs.

18. We shall hire Jack Lambert as linebackers coach (he shall moonlight as the office linebacker and deck unsuspecting slackers all day long).

17. We shall hire James Harrison as director of on-field security.

16. We shall declare the entire Downtown area a parking lot. Tailgate parties shall commence on Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m. and continue until, um, the following Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m.

15. Halftime festivities shall periodically include a ceremonial burning of the resident offensive coordinator.

14. We shall petition the NFL to make the New England Patriots give us two of their Super Bowl rings.

13. We shall hire Mel Blount as secondary coach.

12. We shall offer a Sunday morning church service, at which we shall fervently pray to Ben Roethlisberger.

11. We shall not have Bobblehead Dolls but Voodoo Dolls, in the likenesses of Jerry Glanville, John Madden, Al Davis, Kordell Stewart and Neil O'Donnell.

10. We shall petition the NFL to enshrine every member of the '70's Steelers -- including Jack Deloplaine and Ernest Pough -- into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

9. Rocky Bleier shall deliver a motivational speech before every game.

8. We shall not provide sprinklers at training camp but hire Bill Cowher to shower fans with spittle all day.

7. We shall hire Tommy Maddox as trash collector.

6. We shall expunge any record of having drafted Huey Richardson, Troy Edwards, Tim Worley and Jamain Stephens.

5. We shall replace our stadium's turf with a replica of the Terrible Towel (talk about terrible turf) and dispense transistor radios that play nothing but Myron Cope-isms.

4. We shall hire Bennie Cunningham as tight ends coach.

3. Smoking shall be encouraged in all parts of the stadium.

2. We shall allow fans to reserve parking spots with lawn chairs.

1. Did we mention free beer?


Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com.