Friday, August 31, 2012

Observations: Panthers at Steelers

By Jamison Hensley
August 30, 2012

If this was Charlie Batch's last game with the Steelers, he made it a memorable one, or at least as memorable as the preseason gets. In the 17-16 victory over Carolina, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards. Batch showed great touch in leading Emmauel Sanders out of double coverage for a 37-yard touchdown. The new rule regarding injured reserve helps Batch's chances of sticking around Pittsburgh for an 11th season, but there's no guarantee that he'll make the cut.

For the second consecutive week, a Steelers draft pick went down with a serious knee injury. With two minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Sean Spence hyperextended his knee while chasing quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Spence's knee bent awkwardly underneath him, and the third-round pick needed to be carted off the field. Spence was expected to make an impact on special teams this season and could have received playing time if there were injuries at inside linebacker. Unlike David DeCastro's knee injury, this one happened on the natural grass of Heinz Field.

This isn't a newsflash, but rookie running back-receiver-returner Chris Rainey is a game-changer. He twice scored on punt returns in one quarter, only to have both brought back because of penalties. This would've given him the touchdown trifecta. The fifth-round pick had scored on a 41-yard run and a 57-yard catch this summer.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton made his preseason debut after having ACL surgery in January. His presence was felt immediately as he got off a block from guard Mike Pollak and made a tackle. Hampton's return was good to see for the Steelers, even though Steve McLendon has played well enough to start.

Jonathan Dwyer solidfied himself as the primary backup to Isaac Redman, and the Steelers could need him based on Redman's durability. Dwyer was physical (even delivered a stiff-arm) and showed good feet to elude tacklers. He finished with 63 yards on 13 carries, a 4.8-yard average.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Maturing Alvarez fueling Pirates' playoff push

By Associated Press
August 30, 2012

There's a sound that comes off Pedro Alvarez's bat when the Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman is feeling it that can send a jolt through a stadium and a franchise trying to escape two decades of losing.

It's not so much a "crack" as it is an explosion, a blast of fury in which the 25-year-old former first-round pick makes sending pitches to the distant part of ballparks look almost effortless.

It's the kind of power that can carry a team, the kind the Pirates have desperately needed while fighting for their first postseason berth in two decades.

Alvarez drilled three homers and drove in seven runs during a spectacular 27-hour stretch on Tuesday and Wednesday as the Pirates posted a pair of shutout wins over St. Louis to end a perilous freefall and pull back within a game of the Cardinals for the NL's final wild card spot.

"Every once awhile when he shows up like that he's the big kid on the playground," Hurdle said.

One the Pirates need to be a bully over the last five weeks of the season if they want to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. While MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen has cooled off in August, Alvarez and Garrett Jones have provided the middle of the lineup with some needed thump.

Alvarez is hitting .280 during the season's second half and has already smashed a career-high 26 home runs heading into Friday's game in Milwaukee. While he remains streaky - Alvarez is fourth in the NL in home runs per at bats but has also endured a pair of 20-game homerless droughts - when he's hot he's one of the toughest outs in the game.

It's a lesson St. Louis pitcher Joe Kelly learned on Wednesday. He tried to sneak an 82 mph curveball past Alvarez in the third inning, and Alvarez turned on it and sent a shot to the right field seats so quickly his bat had barely hit the ground when the ball landed 400 feet away.

"He's the kind of player that you just can't pattern," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "Joe threw a breaking ball and most guys are sitting dead red in that situation. He's hit some good off-speed pitches against us. It's not like we're just tossing the ball up there."

Alvarez doesn't have an explanation for why he torched the Cardinals this season, hitting .398 with seven homers and 23 RBIs in 15 games against the defending world champions. He's not really concerned about finding one either.

"The thing about comfort is that you don't really think much when you're up there and you feel comfortable," Alvarez said. "When comfort and confidence go hand-in-hand, it does a lot for you."

Getting into a comfort zone, however, has been difficult for the soft-spoken kid who grew up in New York City. The Pirates made him the second overall pick in the 2008 draft hoping his power and PNC Park's short right-field porch would make a good combination.

It did, at least initially. He smacked 16 homers in 95 games after being called up in 2010 but struggled to stay healthy and get on base a year ago. Alvarez hit .191 with four home runs and 19 RBIs last season, getting booed while meekly dribbling grounders as the Pirates went through a late-summer swoon that sent them to their 19th straight losing season.

The team encouraged Alvarez to play in the Arizona Fall League to refine his swing. Instead he chose to work out alone, a decision that did little to assure a fan base he wasn't another high-profile bust.

A slow start this spring didn't help. Alvarez's batting average didn't creep over .200 until April 30. Then, the switch suddenly flipped. He started spraying the ball all over the field, and perhaps the biggest proof of his newfound maturity at the plate came in the third inning on Tuesday night against St. Louis.

With McCutchen on second and two outs, Alvarez took a Jake Westbrook pitch and hit it into the seats in the notch in left-center field that serves as the deepest part of PNC Park. It was only the fourth time a left-handed batter had gone deep over the 410-foot sign.

The solo blast Alvarez hit three innings later, a 469-foot shot to right-center that Hurdle joked was going to "hit the (Roberto) Clemente Bridge" was just gravy.

"It might have been one of those 'ah-ha' games for Pedro," Hurdle said. "'This is why I work so hard. This is why I put all the extra effort in. This is why I want to be special in this game.'"

The teammates who watched Alvarez shoulder much of the blame for last year's collapse are the same ones who rush to the edge of the dugout each time they hear the thunderous sound Alvarez's bat makes when he's locked in.
Now he's helping lead a charge for a team that insists it's not fading anytime soon.

"These guys love to play," Hurdle said. "They love the challenges in front of them. We're not trying to be slaves to the history that's here. We're trying to create new history."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Comings, Goings on Busy Day

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
August 29, 2012

You know it'll be one of those days in the sports news biz when it starts the way Tuesday did ...
12:34 a.m.: Email alert dings. It's from a source I've trusted a long time, and it's just two words: "Bedard released."
Wow. He's been awful, but I didn't see that coming.
Kind of late. No point trying to call anyone to confirm.
8:56 a.m.: The Pirates dispatch, also by email, that they've "unconditionally released LHP Erik Bedard."
First thought: Need a coffee.
Second thought: Bedard has stunk for so long — 7-14, 5.07 ERA — it's surprising he stayed in the rotation as long as he did.
Third thought: Of the 16 free agents Neal Huntington has signed for $750,000 or more, an astounding 10 — Byung-Hyun Kim, Ramon Vazquez, Eric Hinske, Craig Monroe, Ryan Church, Bobby Crosby, Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth and now Bedard — were released or dumped in negligible midseason trades.
Fourth thought: Coffee. Now.
10:47 a.m.: Initial word tweets out - then keeps tweeting to the point the laptop sounds like an aviary - that Mike Wallace is in town and headed to the Steelers' complex.
Within minutes, a dozen reporters stake out the entrance to the players' lot. An ESPN producer in a candy-striped shirt goes further, a block up the road, presumably in search of the hot exclusive. He even steps into the path of passing vehicles to see which might be Wallace.
Finally caffeinated, I wonder: Is Wallace even among this team's best handful of players?
Nope. I can come up with six better, easy: Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Maurkice Pouncey and, yeah, another wide receiver, Antonio Brown.
But this is Pittsburgh, so ...
11:41 a.m.: Wallace arrives alone, piloting a white Range Rover. As he steps out, decked out in Miami Heat gear — was he taking his talents to South Beach or the South Side? — he is escorted by a security officer and team media relations man.
If he'd blown off a fifth week of work, maybe he'd have gotten a motorcade.
11:55 a.m.: All of us, even the candy-stripe guy, get beaten for the exclusive. Harrison uses his iPhone to interview Wallace and tweets it out.
Safe to say No. 92 hits harder in the field than with his questions.
The icebreaker: "We want to know how it feels to be back, you know what I'm sayin'?"
12:21 p.m.: Harrison's assessment of his journalistic work: "All I know is I beat y'all."
Time to head over to PNC ...
1:14: Car radio has word out of New York that the NHL and its players' union can barely look at each other, let alone have talks.
Honestly, people. Mess with my two trips to Winnipeg, and the elbows will be high.
3:10: The Pirates' clubhouse opens, and Bedard's stall is as clean as the bases after he gives up a homer. But unlike some trades that prompt teammates to chirp or light candles, this gets about as much reaction as the lost-in-space Bedard might have given it himself.
"Erik was quiet, but he was a competitor," closer Joel Hanrahan says. "I wish him well."
Oh, Bedard will do fine. He'll get $1.19 million to do nothing the next five weeks.
3:14: Infielder Chase d'Arnaud claims a stall in another corner. He's the latest of a Mendoza-line parade marching from Indianapolis, his average at .247 even after a two-week tear.
A middle infielder is needed with Neil Walker out, but man, is solid bench help that rare?
The Pirates' reserve bats this year: Gaby Sanchez (.250), Drew Sutton (.243), Josh Harrison (.238), Alex Presley (.234), Casey McGehee (.230), Matt Hague (.229), Jordy Mercer (.208), Yamaico Navarro (.160), McLouth (.140), Gorkys Hernandez (.083) and still-hitless Jeff Clement.
4:51: Time to check the phone for updates from the South Side, where Wallace offers no regrets: "Nah, that's the past. ... Whatever I do, that's what I did."
Say what?
Was he trying to defuse tension or confuse tenses?
7:05: First pitch between the Pirates and Cardinals. In the press box are a few of those ESPN types, presumably having used GPS to find PNC. They'll air the series finale Wednesday.
Unlike at the Steelers' place, that's quite a novelty.
"Hey, Pedro Gomez! ESPN Deportes!" shouts Rod Barajas in an exaggerated Spanish accent.
Poor Pedro turns beet red.
Bedard would have howled.
8:43: Another Pedro, Alvarez, mashes the longest home run by any Pirate at PNC, one of two monsters on the night.
"I just wanted to put good wood on it," Alvarez said.
Right. And Josh Harrison just wanted to politely nudge Yadier Molina out of his way.
9:35: Pirates 9, Cardinals 0.
It was out of nowhere, one of their finest games, speared by Alvarez and a suddenly smooth-again James McDonald.
9:48: Clint Hurdle, as only he can, sums it up with perspective: "It's the most important game we'll play all day."
He then walks out of the room.
9:55: The stadium empty, the main bank of lights blinks off.
But the lights on this stubborn season remain flickering, no matter the house-on-fire abandoning of this team by the city, as seen with only 17,492 on hand for this one?
How many will show up when PNC is lit up again, partly by the rare glare of the national spotlight, partly by the weight of the biggest baseball game in these parts in two decades?
The next 24 hours loom even larger than these.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Pirates down but hardly done

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
August 27, 2012

Oh, I suppose it would be easy to carve up Erik Bedard for getting crushed again. He’s the one the capacity crowd of 36,626 booed off the field Sunday at PNC Park after giving up six runs in the Pirates’ 7-0 smackdown by the Brewers.

That’s 16 runs in Bedard’s past three starts.

I could go after the lineup’s laughable lack of discipline, too. Mark Rogers, the 26-year-old Milwaukee pitcher recycled from the minors in July, somehow got away with flailing 101 pitches over five innings — outlaboring even the glacial Bedard — and the Pirates made him pay with three hits, three walks and an egg on the board.
Every pitch must have looked like a painted strike, huh?

I could pick on many individuals digging this offensive hole, led off by the Pirates’ two best. Neil Walker has four hits in 37 at-bats since that 5-for-5 gem Aug. 12. Andrew McCutchen, now clinging to his MVP candidacy, is at .185 in the past 16 games. Back-to-back in the order Sunday, they went 0 for 9.

Sorry, not good enough. Not when the games count most.

I could also describe the sad sight of hundreds of fans streaming over the bridge back to Downtown as soon as the fifth inning.

It stinks, all of it.

The Pirates stink right now.

They’re 68-59, the closest point to .500 since July 16.

They’ve lost five of six since that 19-inning triumph in St. Louis that so many — myself included — thought would forever expunge Jerry Meals from the record.

They’ve fallen eight games behind the Reds for first place in the Central Division, which you can kiss goodbye.

They’ve fallen out of the wild card, too, now two behind the Cardinals and a half-game behind the Dodgers, who just invested a third-world nation’s GDP into their roster.

If the situation looked dire two weeks ago, it now looks desperate.

But I’ll say it right here, even amid the aftermath of this latest mess: The Pirates aren’t done.

How could they be?

Forget hope. Forget emotion. Let’s go over a few facts:

• The Pirates have 35 games left. Seven are against the stripped-down Cubs, six against these sub-.500 Brewers, six against the historically awful Astros and four against the nosediving Mets. That’s roughly half the slate.

• For better or worse, the Pirates get to face the teams currently holding the two wild-card spots — the Braves and Cardinals — beginning with the vital home series with St. Louis that opens Monday night.

• They believe.

And, yeah, after listening to them following this loss, I’ll file that under fact.

The clubhouse was silent, maybe a little sullen. But I’ve been around enough quitting Pirates teams to identify them.

I’ve seen collapses, too. We all saw it last summer. The wheels completely came off, the heads were hanging, the whole bit.

This isn’t either.

“There’s a lot of fight in here,” Walker said. “These last three weeks have been tough for us, no question, but we have to keep grinding it out. That’s kind of our motto now. Keep grinding it out until we’re back to playing at the level we know we can.”

“Nothing’s changed,” reliever Jason Grilli said. “I’m showing up here to win the next game.”

There’s obviously little momentum to back up such sentiments, of course. It’s been a 9-15 August. It’s the first time all summer the pitching and offense have sputtered simultaneously.

But let me ask: Did anyone think this team was as good at pitching as April and May, or that it had baseball’s most powerful offense as it did in June and July?

Of course not.

The statheads have a term for this called reversion to the mean. It’s about streaks and slumps eventually balancing out.

The Gunner had a better term for it: Hidden vigorish.

It can still apply.

A.J. Burnett and Jeff Karstens continue to pitch well. Wandy Rodriguez has settled. And if Bedard and James McDonald don’t do a whole lot better very soon, Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle need to start maneuvering the roster and rotation as if it’s an actual pennant race. There’s plenty of pitching in Indianapolis.

The bullpen is lighter since the Brad Lincoln trade, but Grilli and Joel Hanrahan still have the team 58-1 when leading through seven.

Offensively, McCutchen and Walker will come around. Garrett Jones shows no sign of cooling. Travis Snider has hit .292 since the trade. Starling Marte will be back.

The Pirates would do well to pop open a jar of vigorish soon, but it’s hardly unthinkable that they will.

I asked Burnett, the team’s unquestioned leader and the man taking the ball Monday, if the fire burns as brightly as a month ago.

“It absolutely does,” he came back. “With how far we’ve come, with where we are in the standings, with what we’ve got left in the season, there’s no reason not to feel that way. Every single day, for nine innings, we’re coming to play. The fight’s in here.”

He paused.

“But it can’t be winning a game or two. We need to get on a roll.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for
Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bad Night in Buffalo

Steelers' David DeCastro goes down against the Bills and is carted off in the first quarter at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
About Joe Starkey
Tribune-Review Joe Starkey co-hosts a talk show 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 "The Fan" Joe Starkey can be reachedvia e-mail or at 412-320-7848.

By Joe Starkey

Published: Sunday, August 26, 2012, 12:31 a.m.Updated 8 hours ago 

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As the theory goes, the third exhibition game is the important one. The one that might tell us something about the season ahead.
Except that it rarely does.
The only real objective, as always in the NFL’s silly season, is to avoid injuries to key players — and the big story here was the potentially severe right knee injury sustained by Steelers rookie guard David DeCastro, who was carted off just 3:11 into the game.
Veteran defensive end Brett Keisel left with a possible high-ankle sprain, though he told me afterward, “It’s no problem.”
DeCastro’s injury alone made this the worst 38-7 victory imaginable.
If Bruce Arians were still the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, the masses would be enraged. They’d be ripping him for calling four straight passes to open the game, including a first-down attempt that sent Ben Roethlisberger into his end zone on the Steelers’ second series.
What happened to re-establishing the run?
They’d be screaming that if the Steelers ran the ball from inside their 5 to open that series, then maybe they wouldn’t have been faced with a 3rd-and-8 from their 6, and maybe DeCastro wouldn’t have crumpled to the turf pass-blocking.
But that’s all talk-show fodder for another day.
The halfway-good news for the Steelers and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley is that they have a capable replacement in Ramon Foster. Not a great one, mind you, but at least Foster has experience, and winning experience at that.
The Steelers also saw Max Starks once again emerge from mothballs to do a commendable job at left tackle. I have come to believe that Starks will never, ever be replaced. He will be the Steelers’ left tackle when he is 72.
“I had one mental error,” Starks said. “Other than that, everything felt good.”
So even if the third exhibition game usually predicts nothing from a team perspective, it can lend insight on individuals …
• Roethlisberger was at his best in the no-huddle at the end of the first half. For all the talk of a rejuvenated running game, a full-time fullback, smash-mouth football, blah, blah, blah, the Steelers will again live and die with their star quarterback. As it should be. Big Ben was spectacular in directing a 98-yard touchdown drive in just 1:33.
• Loved Ben’s quote: “I just started calling my own plays.” That is his mandate in the no-huddle. You better believe Haley is smart enough to let Ben take over at times.
• Willie Colon did a dead-on Chris Kemoeatu impression on the first series. Kyle Williams, who killed Kemoeatu here two years ago, beat Colon inside and forced Roethlisberger out of the pocket. Mario Williams sacked him.
• Byron Leftwich might be slower than Rod Barajas, but he can be my backup quarterback anytime.
• Antonio Brown stayed in way too long, well into the third quarter. What was Mike Tomlin thinking?
• Lawrence Timmons used that scary closing burst to crush quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the Bills’ first series. Timmons — who had seven sacks in 2009 but has only five since — should be utilized more as a pass rusher, especially if James Harrison misses time.
• A toned-up Ziggy Hood looks like a difference-maker. He and Cameron Heyward traded big hits on the quarterback. A young, frisky defensive line could be in the making.
• Isaac Redman was stuffed on a third-and-1, but he scored — mostly on account of his own willpower — on a third-and-goal from the 2. That play, incidentally, saw the Steelers line up with no fewer than four tight ends. Only Mark Bruener was not utilized.
• I noticed Chris Carter twice in the first half — once when he lucked into a sack after Fitzpatrick was flushed, once when he beat running back Fred Jackson’s block to get a hit on Fitzpatrick. Otherwise, rookie tackle Cordy Glenn owned him.
• The special teams, as Tomlin might put it, were “below the line” in the first game without coach Al Everest.
Not that it means much. The third exhibition game rarely does — except when a team sustains a major injury.
Then it’s always a loss.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at
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