Thursday, May 31, 2012

Big numbers produce a nice little win

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/
May 31, 2012


PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30: A.J. Burnett #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pithces against the Cincinnati Reds during the game on May 30, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Don't want to go all inside-baseball on ya, much less pepper you with comparative metrics purporting to explain the quizzical state of the Pirates, but here's a little rule of thumb from the modern analysis industry:

The more players you have in your lineup wearing numbers in the 60s, the poorer your chances of success in the short term, the long term, and, of course, the midterm.

But the Pirates ran two offensive linemen out there Wednesday night against the first-place Cincinnati Reds as part of their new offensive philosophy, code name "Somebody! Anybody!"

You had brand spankin' new shortstop Jordy Mercer, wearing 69, and popular first baseman Matt Hague, number 65. That was half the infield, and the other half -- the relatively established major league half, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker -- was hitting a combined .236.

So on a night when Reds ace Johnny Cueto was reliably shoving Pirates bats right back down into their rack, it was in fact a couple of 60-somethings who enabled the sixth victory of a nine-game homestand.

Hague roped Cueto's 89th pitch up the alley in right center with two out in the sixth to plate Walker and Garrett Jones, overturning a 1-0 Cincinnati lead that had been standing since the top of the first.

"He made some good pitches on me the first two times up," Hague was saying after the Pirates had chinned themselves back to .500. "My swing was getting a little bit long, so I was telling myself to shorten it the best I could."

Hague's first at-bat had been fairly awful, as it happened, because all he could do with a 2-0 pitch against a drawn-in infield was roll it slowly to third baseman Todd Frazier, or to just about the only place on the entire North Side acreage where a batted ball would not score Jones from third.

Hague flied to center in the fourth, and by the time he reappeared in the sixth, no one was thinking Cueto looked in any way vulnerable.

"You know there's a swing in there because we've seen it," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "But yeah, he'd made a soft out early and he was as disappointed as anybody, but that probably sparked his focus for the rest of the game.

"I mean, the inning started with two out and nobody on and nobody was thinking, 'We're gonna get a rally goin' any minute now.' So Matt showed some resolve right there."

After Walker had walked and Jones sliced a hit-and-run single to right to put runners on the corners, Cueto missed with the 1-1 pitch to Hague and made a good pitch on 2-1.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/gene-collier/big-numbers-produce-a-nice-little-win-638200/

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

L.T. the X-factor in takeaways

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


There isn’t much to glean from football in shorts, but that hasn’t lessened the fun at the Steelers’ offseason training activities when watching that little No. 22 squirt through the line, spin around defenders and sprint into open grass untouched.

“Alley Cat!” Mike Tomlin booms from the sideline.

The cat in question is Chris Rainey, the 5-foot-9 running back and fifth-round draft pick out of Florida, and he’s a stick of dynamite each time he touches the ball. Might be even faster than Mike Wallace.

Just ask him.

“I’m confident I am the fastest,” Rainey will beam, “but I’m not going to say any names.”
Awesome.

Can he play defense?

I’m kidding, of course, but one thought I had as OTAs opened their second week Tuesday on a steamy South Side was that this offense could have enough speed to bend the time-and-space continuum. It will have Wallace, Antonio Brown and maybe Rainey if Tomlin and Todd Haley can carve out a scatback — or “Cat-back” — role. It’s elite athleticism whichever way Ben Roethlisberger turns.

But my second thought was that the projected starting defense is shaping up to be … well, gentlemen, let’s see those birth certificates …

Safeties: Troy Polamalu (31), Ryan Clark (32)

Cornerbacks: Ike Taylor (32), Keenan Lewis (26)

Linebackers: James Harrison (34), Larry Foote (31), LaMarr Woodley (27), Lawrence Timmons (26)

Line: Casey Hampton (34), Brett Keisel (33), Ziggy Hood (25)

Even with James Farrior gone, that’s an average age of 30.1, compared to 25.2 on offense.

Sure, the defense still has the big names, and that’s great. There isn’t a team in the NFL that wouldn’t embrace Polamalu, Harrison, Hampton and Keisel, even in their 30s.

And sure, the Steelers collectively boasted the league’s No. 1 defense in 2011. Fewest points allowed. Fewest yards per game.

But there’s more to this, and we’ve all seen it.

We saw Tim Tebow run up 316 yards and real, live NFL quarterbacks fare even better.
We saw three 100-yard rushers after one in the previous 50 games.

Above all, we saw the league-low 15 takeaways: 11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries. This after pretty much the same players had a superb 35 takeaways in 2010.

Those are all glaring signs of a group that had lost its edge. They performed well in the
X’s-and-O’s sense, filled holes and finished tackles. But they no longer could make the “splash play,” per Tomlin’s term. They no longer had that X-factor, that singular force to wreak havoc both on the field and with opponents’ playbooks.

And that begs a question it’s not too soon to ask: Who will change that?

It still could be Harrison, Woodley or Polamalu if healthy, obviously, but health loomed large for all three last year.

My choice: Timmons.

(Waits for eyes to stop rolling all across Steelers Nation.)

No question, Timmons’ expected breakout last year was a dud. His tackles plummeted from 149 in 2010 to just 91. He brashly predicted 18 sacks and backed that up with, um, two. He failed to force a solitary fumble. But that’s largely because he bounced from inside to outside to cover for Harrison and Woodley being hurt, a tough move to make in training camp let alone from game to game.

Tomlin and his staff still have legitimate cause to set sky-high goals for Timmons. His positional coach, Keith Butler, calls him “one of the better linebackers in the league,” and it’s hard to disagree, at least in potential. Timmons has a rare combination of size, strength and speed that make him the Steelers’ most explosive big man. And with how he’ll be used in Dick LeBeau’s scheme, he’s just as likely to rush the quarterback as to drop into coverage and pick him off. Big play either way.
So, about that breakout …

“You know, I always go into a season wanting to have a breakout, and it’s that way this year, too,” No. 94 said yesterday after practice. “I want to go out and start with a bang, show my team what I can do.”

And about the team getting more takeaways …

“That’s going to start with me. It starts right here at these practices, getting the details down, then getting the job done.”

It’s overdue. Let’s see it.

Let’s also see other livelier legs contribute. Let’s see if Lewis can out-perform the slower William Gay he’s replacing. Let’s see more of Cam Heyward (23), Steve McLendon (26), Stevenson Sylvester (23) and Jason Worilds (24). Let’s give a shot to hyper-athletic corner Curtis Brown (23), who has dazzled at these OTAs.

Make it a competition in Latrobe: Whoever collects the most footballs wins.

Photo: Bob Levy/Getty Images

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

Monday, May 28, 2012

Alvarez would make big difference with consistency

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/
May 28, 2012


PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 27: Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a three run home run in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs during the game on May 27, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

It's in there somewhere. Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez believes that with all his heart. So does manager Clint Hurdle. But there is one question they can't answer at this point: How do they get it out? How do they get the consistency out of Alvarez?

"There's not a button I can push," Alvarez said Sunday, sounding very much like a man who wishes there were one.

"He just has to keep working," Hurdle said. "It's all about incremental progress. We're going to stay positive with him."

It isn't easy to stick with a corner infielder who is hitting .207 on a team that has scored the fewest runs in baseball, but Hurdle has done it unfailingly with Alvarez. That's because he knows how important Alvarez is to the Pirates' future. It's because he sees not just the consistency that's hidden deep inside Alvarez but also the tremendous potential. "He has a chance to be a legitimate run-producer in this league for a long time," Hurdle said.

Alvarez rewarded the boss' patience with a big game Sunday in the Pirates' 10-4 win against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. It's no coincidence they scored their most runs of the season to complete a three-game sweep against a bad Cubs team that has lost 12 in a row. Alvarez hit a three-run home run in the first inning and had a sacrifice fly in the team's six-run sixth. The home run was significant for a couple of reasons. It was Alvarez's eighth of the season but his first since May 3, a span of 69 at-bats. It also was the Pirates' first three-run home run of the season. It only took 47 games.

"Can you believe it was our first?" Hurdle asked, sounding very much like a man who couldn't believe it.

"I like 'em. I'm a big fan of 'em. Hopefully, like everything else, they'll come in bunches."

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/ron-cook/cook-alvarez-would-make-big-difference-with-consistency-637834/

Pirates have arms, why not bats?

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
May 28, 2012


PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 22: James McDonald #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the New York Mets during the game on May 22, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

When James McDonald takes the mound on this Memorial Day at PNC Park, he’ll do so as an All-Star in the making. He’s been that good, with a 2.51 ERA and the National League’s 10th-most strikeouts.

Hats off to him.

And hats off to Neal Huntington and the Pirates for how they analyzed, acquired and adjusted McDonald the past two years. It’s been a model of how a big league organization should — and how low-spending teams must — build a championship-caliber roster.

Yeah, I can guess what you’re thinking now.

Just wait. I’ll get there.

Let’s first revisit three key points in McDonald’s ascent:

1. McDonald was an underachieving, wiry-framed reliever with the Dodgers, but the Pirates’ scouts still had his name high on a list of targets — as a starter — at the 2010 trading deadline.

2. The Pirates zeroed in on a then-dysfunctional Los Angeles front office — ownership was in flux — and pounced by stealing McDonald for a 36-year-old Octavio Dotel.

3. When McDonald sputtered as a starter, the Pirates stuck by him. When he struggled to get past five innings, Ray Searage, the superb pitching coach, sold him on efficiency over strikeouts. When he became too reliant on the fastball and curve, Searage added a slider this spring.

It’s all been outstanding work by the Pirates, every step handled impeccably.

And the fact is, McDonald is one of many examples of Huntington and the Pirates producing quality pitching, whether through trades, free agency or the draft.

OK, now let’s get to that earlier thought you might have had: WHAT ABOUT HITTING?
Actually, let’s amend that to reflect the unicorn sighting of a 10-4 rout of Chicago on Sunday: WHAT ABOUT HITTING AGAINST TEAMS NOT NEARLY AS PATHETIC AS THE CUBS?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pirates getting whiff of history

By John Grupp
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 26: Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits an RBI single in the third inning against the Chicago Cubs during the game on May 26, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Pirates may be last in attendance in the National League, but you can still find plenty of fans.

Just look in the box score.

When the Pirates struck out only eight times in a 3-1 loss to the Mets on Wednesday, the free-swinging, light-hitting club snapped a dubious streak that was nearing historic proportions.

The Pirates were threatening to become only the seventh team since 1918 to strike out 10-plus times in six consecutive games. No team in the past 90 years has fanned 10-plus times seven games in a row.

But give these Pirates some time. It’s only Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Garrett Jones, who is striking out about once every four plate appearances. “Whether you are going up there too aggressive or being under aggressive, there’s a fine line of seeing the ball and getting a good pitch to hit and hitting it.”

Here are some of the ugly truths through Friday’s games:

• The Pirates have struck out an MLB-leading 382 times and are on pace for 1,375 strikeouts, which would tie the 2010 Marlins for third-most in major league history behind the 2010 Diamondbacks (1,529 Ks) and ’01 Brewers (1,399).
• They are striking out on 24.1 percent of their plate appearances, which would rank second all-time behind only the Mark Reynolds-led ’10 Diamondbacks (24.7 percent).
• They have struck out 17 times in a nine-inning game twice this season — the same number as the previous 125 years of Pirates baseball combined.

During last week’s “fan-fest,” the Pirates whiffed 41 times in a three-game series in Detroit and 23 times in the first two games against the visiting Mets. Whether they were making Max Scherzer (15 strikeouts) look like Nolan Ryan or flailing as knuckleballer R.A. Dickey racked up a career-high 11 strikeouts, the scorebook was filled with Ks.

The Pirates were third in Major League Baseball last year with 1,308 strikeouts, setting a club record in the unwelcome category for the second year in a row. They don’t have many strikeout kings this year — Pedro Alvarez is the only batter in the top 20 in the NL in strikeouts — just a lot of consistent whiffs.

“I can’t really say what I attribute it to,” said Josh Harrison, who has whiffed only 11 times in 72 plate appearances. “A lot of guys are still trying to come into their own and get comfortable. When you’re not comfortable, sometimes you are going to chase pitches or let the good ones go. You get overanxious. It’s one of those things where guys sometimes are putting too much pressure on themselves.”

While most high-strikeout teams are free swingers with good power numbers, the Pirates aren’t getting much bang for their buck. They have hit 35 home runs this season, 22nd in the majors. When the Diamondbacks shattered the major league record with 1,529 strikeouts in 2010, they had four players with at least 25 home runs and finished sixth in the majors with 180 home runs. The Marlins, who led the league in strikeouts in 2007 and ’08, finished in the top five in home runs both years.
Other record-breaking strikeout teams (the ’01 Brewers and the 109-loss 1996 Tigers) were in the top 10 in the majors in home runs.

The Pirates as a team are striking out as much as Willie Stargell (seventh all-time) while hitting home runs as frequently as Joe Randa (one HR per 44 AB).

Manager Clint Hurdle, the hitting coach for the 2010 AL champion Texas Rangers, and hitting coach Gregg Ritchie want the batters to relax at the plate.

“We are just trying to square up the fastball and hit the ball to the big part of the field,” Hurdle said. “We’ve all gone through periods of overcomplicating things and trying too hard and trying to do too much. We are trying to settle them down. See it good and put a good swing on it.”

John Grupp is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jgrupp@tribweb.com or 412-320-7930.

Steelers: Dream/Nightmare Scenarios

By Jamison Hensley
http://espn.go.com/blog/afcnorth/
May 24, 2012


Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Steelers in 2012.


Dream scenario (13-3): Losing a handful of veterans this offseason won't impact the Steelers' play on the field. The Steelers show last year's division champion (the Ravens) and the division's upstart team (the Bengals) that they still own the division as long as Ben Roethlisberger is healthy and the defense is at full strength. A return trip to the Super Bowl would follow their pattern (Pittsburgh went in the 2008 and 2010 seasons).

Roethlisberger thrives in Todd Haley's offense much like Kurt Warner did. The biggest change is a quicker release, which will allow Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to show off their elusiveness and make yards after the catch. The offensive line becomes the best in the AFC North with center Maurkice Pouncey staying healthy, right tackle Marcus Gilbert continuing to develop and rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams living up to expectations.

The Steelers' pass rush is even stronger this season because James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will be on the field together for more than a handful of games this year. The run defense is bolstered by the return of nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is able to start the season despite having knee surgery in January. The combination of Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester makes up for the loss of inside linebacker James Farrior.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Pittsburgh underestimates the loss of leadership after parting ways with Farrior, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke. The Steelers also struggle more than expected with the injuries to Hampton and running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee surgery in January). It's tough to win in one of the top divisions in football when you're not at full strength.

The key to any Steelers season is the health of Roethlisberger. While the Steelers' offensive line has the potential to rank among the best, this year could be a transitional one as well. Roethlisberger could take a good number of hits behind a line that starts two rookies and moves tackle Willie Colon to guard. Losing Roethlisberger will result in a losing season. Pittsburgh would then have to depend more on a running game without Mendenhall. Isaac Redman has shown flashes, but he is a question mark as a featured back.

Defensively, the run defense becomes vulnerable in the middle with the injury to Hampton and the loss of Farrior. Hampton starts the season on the physically unable to perform list, and Steve McLendon and rookie Alameda Ta'amu can't fill the void. The pass defense takes a step back if one of the young cornerbacks (Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown) can't replace William Gay.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pirates 'offense' making history

By Joe Starkey
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
May 24, 2012


PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 23: Josh Harrison #5 of the Pittsburgh Pirates scores on an RBI single by Andrew McCutchen #22 (not pictured) against the New York Mets during the game on May 23, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Mets defeated the Pirates 3-1. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

First, a public service regarding speculation that the Pirates are the most anemic offensive team ever assembled.

They are not.

Not yet, anyway.

But they are on pace to become the second-lowest scoring team of the expansion era, which dates to 1961. After a lifeless 3-1 loss to the New York Mets on Wednesday, the Pirates are averaging a miniscule 2.863 runs per game. Elias Sports Bureau tells us that number would place them third among the worst offenses of the past 42 years.

The five lowest-scoring teams since ‘61 ...

5. The 1968 L.A. Dodgers (2.90)
4. The 1969 expansion San Diego Padres (2.89)
3. The 2012 Pirates (2.863)
2. The 1968 Chicago White Sox (2.858)
1. The 1963 Houston Colt .45s (2.858)

It gets worse. A college student sitting next to me at PNC Park feverishly looked up numbers on FanGraphs.com and discovered that the Pirates are on pace to post the SECOND-LOWEST ON-BASE PERCENTAGE OF ALL-TIME, behind only the Brooklyn Superbas of 1908.

What is a Superba?

The kid didn’t know. Neither did anyone else. Meanwhile, the Twittersphere kept spitting out mind-blowing Pirates numbers. ESPN Stats and Info fired off this one: “The Pirates have 14 games scoring one run or fewer. That matches the most for the team in first 44 games since 1918.”

The kid wanted to go deeper on the Pirates’ .269 on-base percentage.

“These numbers only go back to 1900,” he said. “Let’s go back before that.”

No, no, let’s not. Let’s stick with the obvious here: The Pirates have put together a historically horrendous lineup — so far wasting a top-five pitching staff — and the best answer they can think of is Gorkys Hernandez, who made his first major league start yesterday and failed to get a ball out of the infield.

You’ll notice a couple of the teams listed above were from 1968, known as “The Year of the Pitcher.” Bob Gibson had a 1.12 earned run average in 1968. Denny McLain won 31 games. Major League Baseball subsequently took the drastic measure of reducing the height of the mound from 15 inches to 10.

What will it do for the Pirates, bring out tees?

Read more:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Get over it, Ben

By Dejan Kovacevic
pittsburgh Tribune-Review
http://triblive.com/sports/
May 23, 2012


Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) listens to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, left, during the first day of NFL football practice at the team’s training facility on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 in Pittsburgh. Quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner listens at center. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Ben Roethlisberger's disposition seemed as sunny as the skies over the Steelers' South Side fields Tuesday morning. It was the opening of organized team activities, and he looked as loose and lively in drills - "I've lost a few pounds," he explained - as he did in animatedly engaging his teammates.
Big Ben, bundle of joy.

Right up until someone brought up the playbook.

And even then, through media questioning of how the franchise quarterback is handling new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's wholly new playbook, Roethlisberger at least went with a grin-and-bear-it approach.

I asked if he and Haley are on the same page yet.

"Well, that's the goal," Roethlisberger replied with a broad smile. "I'm going to put in extra work to learn his offense and try to get there."

Does he like what he's seen of the plays so far?

"Yeah, sure," he came back, this time with a slight shrug. "It's kind of early to see too much."

How about this OTA opener?

"It was frustrating. It gets frustrating at times. But we'll keep learning."

Roethlisberger's still smiling all this time, by the way.

Will it be hard to stay in the pocket, as Mike Tomlin and the coaches are urging him?
"Sure, yeah, I mean, whatever. I'm supposed to get rid of the ball, stay in the pocket, not take hits ... so, I guess I better learn where the protections are coming from so I don't get hit."

More laughter.

There was a lot more of this, too. And with each passing answer, it became that much more transparent that Roethlisberger has a long way to go to accept how the Steelers treated him this offseason.

I don't blame him.

Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/1836198-74/roethlisberger-think-haley-offense-playbook-steelers-stay-tomlin-ben-coordinator

Monday, May 21, 2012

Will GM ever address Pirates’ hitting?

By Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
http://triblive.com/sports/
May 21, 2012


DETROIT, MI - MAY 20: Neil Walker #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a solo home run to right field in the sixth inning during the inter-league game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on May 20, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

DETROIT — Give it up for these Pirates. They’ve got to be the only team in Major League Baseball that strikes out 15 times against a pitcher with a 6.29 ERA — all swinging! — and still somehow stays in the game. At least until they bury themselves with a booted blooper, a passed ball and yet another strikeout by Pedro Alvarez, the day’s designated oxymoron.

Tigers 4, Pirates 3.

Not an easy team to love, is it?

Or to believe in.

And yet, I couldn’t help but take seriously something Andrew McCutchen was saying earlier Sunday at Comerica Park: “Look at what we’ve done so far without really having our offense yet. We know the pitching’s going to be there. If we can get the offense going, even just a little, we’ll be unstoppable.”

I wouldn’t go that far. But thanks almost entirely to McCutchen’s tour de force and one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, the Pirates are 19-22. That’s respectable, if not riveting, and it’s just 3 games off the Central Division lead.

Anyone else think that at least a foundation is there?

Not for the future. Right now.

Here’s an amazing figure: When the Pirates score as many as two measly runs, they’re 18-9.

“We’ve already got the most important thing,” catcher Rod Barajas said. “If you have that pitching — and we do — then you’ve got a chance to win every single day. Remember the Giants a couple years ago? They won it all with their pitching. If we can hit just enough, we’ve got a chance.”

I wonder if the Pirates’ management sees the same thing.

So far, based on the lack of any response to the worst offense in all of professional baseball — majors or minors, all the way down to A-ball — it’s hard to say they do.

Here’s the full list of moves made this season by Neal Huntington and the front office to address the offense: Gorkys Hernandez, a toothpick of a bat in the minors, was recalled for this series. That’s it. (He then sat all weekend while Nate McLouth’s latest futility streak reached 19 at-bats and should have him in peril of being cut.)

You already know this is a terrible hitting team, obviously excluding McCutchen.
But did you know it’s a terrible hitting organization?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

McCutchen homers twice as Pirates beat Tigers 4-3

By NOAH TRISTER
The Associated Press
http://sports.yahoo.com/
May 19, 2012

DETROIT, MI - MAY 19: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates with third base coach Nick Leyva #16 after hitting a two run home run in the first inning scoring during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on May 19, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

DETROIT (AP) -- At times, Andrew McCutchen looks like the only threatening hitter in the entire Pittsburgh lineup.
And on some days, his power alone is enough to give the Pirates a win.

McCutchen hit a pair of two-run homers and A.J. Burnett pitched six solid innings to lead Pittsburgh to a 4-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Saturday.

A day after Detroit's Justin Verlander took a no-hitter into the ninth while shutting out the Pirates, McCutchen struck back with his second multihomer game in three days.

"I really wouldn't say I had real tough at-bats against Verlander. I had some decent at-bats, but he just got the best of me," McCutchen said. "You just show up tomorrow and get `em the next day."
McCutchen certainly did that against Tigers rookie Drew Smyly (1-1). It was the sixth career multihomer game for McCutchen, who has seven home runs on the season.

Pittsburgh is hitting .218 as a team, but McCutchen is at a lofty .346 and establishing himself as one of the game's best outfielders.

On Thursday night, he homered twice in a win at Washington.

"We joke in the dugout, `Why do you throw this guy a strike?"' Burnett said. "But some pitches he's hitting are good pitches too, so it just shows you what kind of player Cutch is."

Prince Fielder hit a two-run homer for the Tigers, who stranded 10 runners, but struck out swinging with a man on first to end it.

Burnett (2-2) allowed two runs and seven hits before three relievers finished it off, with Joel Hanrahan pitching a hitless ninth inning for his ninth save.

Josh Harrison , who broke up Verlander's no-hit bid Friday night, also had Pittsburgh's first hit off Smyly on a bunt single in the first. McCutchen followed with a long homer to left-center.
After Fielder tied it in the third with his seventh homer, McCutchen connected again in the fifth, hitting an opposite-field shot to right after Harrison had been hit by a pitch.

Burnett, meanwhile, outdueled Smyly in a matchup of Arkansans on the mound. Both are from the Little Rock area.

Burnett was traded to the Pirates at the start of spring training and hurt himself almost immediately when he fouled a ball off his right eye during a bunting drill. Now healthy, he's given his new team some quality performances.

Against St. Louis on May 2, he allowed 12 runs in 2 2-3 innings, but in his other five starts, he's gone 2-1 with a 2.06 ERA. It's an encouraging trend for Burnett after three erratic years with the New York Yankees .

"I feel comfortable being a Pittsburgh Pirate," Burnett said. "I just feel like I can be more myself, and do more of the things I want to do on the mound, and have fun."

Smyly allowed four runs and seven hits in 4 2-3 innings. It was the shortest start for the left-hander since he went four-plus innings in his big league debut April 12.  
The Tigers have not won back-to-back games since their 9-3 start, and they failed to build on Verlander's gem. After falling behind on McCutchen's second homer, Detroit got a run back in the seventh on a passed ball by Pittsburgh catcher Rod Barajas , but Alex Avila struck out with the tying run on second to end that inning.

Brennan Boesch hit a leadoff single in the bottom of the eighth, but Jhonny Peralta struck out and Ramon Santiago lined into a double play.

"It looks like some of the guys are beginning to swing better," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "We've got to have some timely two-out hits."

NOTES: Leyland was still gushing Saturday after Verlander's one-hitter the previous night. "I've never seen a better-pitched game than that one last night - never," Leyland said. ... Pittsburgh RHP Jeff Karstens (right shoulder inflammation) is scheduled to pitch Monday for Double-A Altoona as part of a rehab assignment. ... Boesch extended his hitting streak to 12 games. ... The teams honored the Negro Leagues by wearing the uniforms of the Detroit Stars and Pittsburgh Crawfords. ... The Pirates are 19-8 when scoring two or more runs. ... McCutchen is 10 for his last 15 against left-handers and is 18 for 40 against them on the season. ... Detroit's Max Scherzer (2-3) takes the mound against Pittsburgh's Kevin Correia (1-4) in the series finale Sunday.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

McDonald emerging as Bucs' ace

By John Perrotto
Beaver County Times
http://www.timesonline.com/sports/
May 16, 2012


PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 18: James McDonald #53 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on April 18, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

A certain number of positives have developed for the Pirates in the first 20 percent or so of the season.

Chief among them is being able to stay close to .500 despite have an anemic offense. The Pirates went into Tuesday night's game at Miami averaging 2.86 a runs a game, easily behind San Diego's 3.17 for the worst mark in the major leagues and less than half as many of Texas' 5.78.
While the Pirates continue to search for a loophole in the rulebook that would allow them to win 0-0 games, a No. 1 starting pitcher has been developing in their midst.
Getting too excited about a pitcher seven starts into a season can prove to be folly. However, it cannot be disputed that right-hander James McDonald has pitched like an ace so far and, at 27 years of age, should only get better.

McDonald is 2-2 with a 2.42 ERA. In 44 2/3 innings, he has allowed just 31 hits while striking out 39 and walking 15.

Those are the numbers of a dominant starting pitcher, the type of staff ace the Pirates have been lacking since Doug Drabek headed home to Houston as a free agent following the 1992 season. That also happens to be the last season in which the Pirates had more wins than losses.

McDonald pitching well is not a complete surprise. He had shown flashes of brilliance since the Pirates acquired him from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline in 2010.

The difference between McDonald of the past two seasons and this year is consistency.

McDonald has turned in quality starts -- six or more innings, three earned runs or less -- in five of his seven outings and allowed one earned run.

McDonald has bordered on brilliant in his last four starts as he has gone 2-1 with a 1.86 ERA. He has struck out 33 in 29 innings while allowing six runs on 18 hits and nine walks.

McDonald has also thrown strikes on 63 percent of his 421 pitches, something that had been a problem for him in the past.

"I saw a different James McDonald when he reported to spring training," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He really wanted to work to get better. He asked a lot of questions in an attempt to find ways to improve."

McDonald's work ethic has carried over into this season. Teammates say he's more serious and focused than in the past.

McDonald already had the talent with a plus fastball and curveball to go with a decent changeup. He has mixed in a slider this season along with a larger dose of maturity that comes with a player moving into his later 20s.

Now that he is putting it all together, the Pirates hold baseball's equivalent of a winning lottery ticket -- a starting pitcher on track to becoming a legitimate No. 1.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Burnett has been the pitcher the Pirates hoped he'd be

By Chuck Curti
Beaver County Times
http://www.timesonline.com/sports/
May 14, 2012


PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 13: A.J. Burnett #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Houston Astros during the game on May 13, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH -- During their 19-year run of futility, the Pirates have made a number of forgettable acquisitions.

Pat Mears, Jeromy Burnitz, Lastings Milledge, Ronny Cedeno, Lyle Overbay, Andy LaRoche, Derek Bell and Chan Ho Park are among the more infamous deals sealed by the club. Because of this shaky track record, there's plenty of hand-wringing every time the Pirates add a player from another team.But, at least in the early going, it appears that A.J. Burnett's name won't be added to the aforementioned rogues gallery.
The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees in an off-season trade hoping that he -- along with fellow veteran Erik Bedard -- could stabilize a developing starting rotation. It was a calculated risk. Though the 35-year-old wasn't too far removed from some effective seasons, he was coming off two straight miserable years with the Yankees that saw him finish with ERAs north of 5.00.

During spring training, the karma was not good after Burnett broke a bone in his eye socket by bunting a ball back into his face. With the exception of one outing, however, Burnett has been everything the Pirates had hoped he would be.

Burnett had another strong start Sunday in the Pirates' 3-2, 12-inning win over the Astros. He worked eight innings, giving up two earned runs with four strikeouts and no walks.

"It's what I expect," said Burnett. "You're not going to be perfect every time. Our goal is to keep our team in it, stay out there as long as we can and not worry about the results. That's why I was able to bounce back.

"You can't get caught up in any start whether it's a good one or a bad one. You've got another one in five days, and we just want to throw up zeroes the best we can."

Toss out his abysmal outing against St. Louis, when he gave up 12 earned runs in just 2 2/3 innings, and Burnett has been brilliant. In his other four starts this season, Burnett has pitched 29 innings and given up only six earned runs (1.86 ERA) with 29 strikeouts and only six walks.

Despite surrendering Chris Johnson's RBI single that put Houston up 2-1 in the seventh, Burnett prevented further damage in the inning by getting out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam.

"I just told (pitching coach) Ray (Searage) I'm going to see how he feels," said manager Clint Hurdle about potentially taking Burnett out after the seventh inning. "And normally when I'm going to ask a pitcher how he feels and he's down by a run, I pretty much know the answer.

"I just wanted to see if he was strong, and he said, 'No, I'm in a good place. Trust me.' And I said, 'Sure.' He still had pitches to work with and it (the eighth) turned out to be one of his most effective innings of the game."

Houston went 1-2-3 in the eighth on two weak groundouts and a popup.

Burnett was let off the hook for the loss when Pedro Alvarez hit a tying sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth. Truthfully, it was the least the Pirates' offense could have done for Burnett after he had kept them in the game -- never mind that it left him with a no-decision after he threw eight solid innings against Washington five days ago.

Perhaps that's why Burnett happily gave shortstop Josh Harrison the traditional post-game shaving cream pie in the face after Harrison's game-winning single in the 12th.

"It's always nice, for one, just to get a win," said shortstop Clint Barmes, who doubled and scored on Harrison's hit. "The way our staff has been throwing all season, it would be nice to be able to score a few more runs for the starting guys.

"They've kept us in the game every night out. ... It's definitely nice to pick it up in the ninth inning and at least not give him the loss."

The Pirates' starting rotation has been one of the majors' best through the first month and a half of 2012. Burnett's performance has played no small part in that.

Once the offense comes around, the Pirates might actually be able to contend in a weak National League Central ... and maybe even break that string of losing seasons and bad player pickups.

"I think they (offense) are starting to relax a little bit," said Burnett. "They never give up. That's the thing about these guys. We couldn't get a hit for eight innings and they wouldn't give up. That's our job: just keep us in games as long as we can until they strike. Because these boys don't quit."

ccurti@timesonline.com

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

More, please, from Barajas, Barmes

By Dejan Kovacevic
Tribune-Review
http://triblive.com/sports/
May 9, 2012


PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 08: Rod Barajas #26 of the Pittsburgh Pirates watches the ball after hitting the game winning two run home run in the 9th inning against the Washington Nationals during the game on May 8, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Only once in the 126-year history of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club has the offense averaged fewer than three runs per game. That was 1917, Honus Wagner’s farewell season. The average was 2.96.

The current group, which makes contact with a baseball about as often as the ghost of the great Dutchman might, is averaging 2.86 runs.

It’s been that bad.

And no part of it has been worse than the bottom of the Pirates’ order, where Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes have brought up the rear in just about every offensive category in Major League Baseball.

How bad?

When Barajas stepped into the box at 9:40 p.m. Tuesday at PNC Park, he lugged along a .127 average, zero home runs, zero RBI in 63 at-bats and the fresh memory of being booed by the 10,324 on hand with his previous at-bat.

Wait. It gets worse.

There were two outs in the ninth. The Pirates trailed Washington by a run. And, as fate would have it, Barajas would be in line to make the final out of another flat-liner of a defeat, this one all the more painful because Joel Hanrahan had just blown a lead in the top half.

Yeah, that bad.

Then, at 9:43 p.m., Barajas tore into a Henry Rodriguez fastball and lasered it into the base of the left-field rotunda.

He was touching ’em all.

Bottoms up and sky high.

Pirates 5, Nationals 4.

“What a feeling,” Barajas said, traces of whipped cream outlining his eyes courtesy of A.J. Burnett, who still had one accurate toss in him after 10 strikeouts. “I’ve been working hard. This was nice.”

It will be even nicer if it’s a precursor of an all-out revival — or resurrection, really — of the bottom of the order.

The Pirates’ total of 83 runs isn’t just last in the majors. It’s the lowest — better sit down for this — of any team in professional baseball. Yeah, all 150 of ’em, from the Savannah Sand Gnats to the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Only the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings are even close, with 91 runs.

Sure, Pedro Alvarez is coming alive, and the rest of the top six are, at worst, near expectations. But here’s the rub: The No. 7 spot in the order is batting .179, which ranks 28th of 30 teams. And the No. 8 spot is batting .167, which is dead last and, tellingly, tied to the decimal point with the Pirates’ No. 9 spot.

That’s entire innings being forfeited at a time.

And that falls almost entirely on Barajas and Barmes.

As Clint Hurdle adroitly put it, “We need to be able to score runs from anywhere in the lineup. Obviously, we’ve had challenges at 7 and 8. We’ve got two experienced guys who’ve fared better. They understand. They’re not happy. They know we’ve got to improve.”

Better believe they know it.

These guys aren’t Jeromy Burnitz. They’re not the type to casually collect their retirement checks and call it a career. I can tell you — and those who booed — from my interviews with these two players and their teammates and coaches that they are tireless workers trying everything to get right.
Barmes, off to a .159 start, is in the batting cage so often he’ll soon seek naming rights.

“If that were the ticket to getting hits,” he said, “I think I’d be doing pretty well right now.”

As it is ...

“The bottom of the lineup comes up a lot of times with a chance to do something, and ... hey, I fall right into that. I haven’t done my part.”

Barajas’ approach has been little different, except that he’s also had to stay upbeat while working with the pitchers.

“I guarantee you, as much as this is driving me crazy, I don’t think the guys see it,” he said. “They have no idea how much I want to do better, how unhappy I am with where I’m at. But I’ve got to put on that face.”

None of us can know if Barajas’ moment will be more than exactly that. But I do feel richly confident in predicting that their biggest fan all summer will be one Neal Huntington.

Remember, these were his top position players acquired in free agency this past winter: Barajas for a year at $4 million, Barmes for two years and $10 million.

Recite with me the list of Huntington’s free-agent hitting flops: Ramon Vazquez. Chris Gomez. Ryan Church. Bobby Crosby. Eric Hinske. Lyle Overbay. Matt Diaz. Go ahead and count Aki Iwamura, too. His rights were acquired from Tampa Bay as part of an agreement to sign him the same day.

Those eight, plus Barajas, Barmes and the .211 return of Nate McLouth, are all of the outside hitters Huntington has signed on major league terms.

The 11 players’ combined contribution over 1,735 at-bats in Pittsburgh: .223 average, 20 home runs, 150 RBI. That’s a home run a month, basically.

Their combined cost: $30.35 million, including $7.13 million in buyouts or assumed cost to get rid of Vazquez, Iwamura, Overbay, Hinske and Diaz.

Wasting even more money and more at-bats ... well, let’s see what Barajas’ blast brings.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Steelers still special to Blount

By Jim Lane                
The Altoona Mirror
http://www.altoonamirror.com/page/category.detail/nav/765/Sports.html
May 6, 2012


DUNCANSVILLE - Four-time Super Bowl champion. Member of Pro Football's Hall of Fame. Named to the NFL's 75th anniversary All-Time team. Ranked by The Sporting News as one of the 100 greatest football players of all time.

There's not much Mel Blount hasn't attained. Heck, he was so good the NFL had to change its rules because of him.

The former Pittsburgh Steeler star was the keynote speaker Saturday when the Blair County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People celebrated its annual Freedom Fund dinner at the Calvin House.

"The Steelers of the '70s was a fascinating journey," Blount said prior to the dinner. "I came in 1970. [Coach] Chuck Noll came in 1969 and made Joe Greene his first draft choice. I came with [Terry] Bradshaw, he was the No. 1 pick, [receiver] Ron Shanklin was the No. 2 pick and I was No. 3.
"It was the beginning of a journey that I won't ever forget."

Blount, who played both cornerback and safety at Southern University, was a pro standout from 1970 to 1983. The Steelers were the NFL's most dominant team during most of Blount's career, winning four Super Bowl titles along the way.

"There were a tremendous amount of good people we met along the way," he said. "The talent. The great athletes. But, more importantly, the Steelers of the '70s were not only great athletes, they were great people.

"To this day, there is such a bond that we could not see each other for six or seven years, but when we do it's just an immediate bond," he said. "Not only the players, but the media people - the Myron Copes and Bill Hillgroves - people who covered us and wrote stories ... guys who were part of that experience.

"It's just a big family and is still special to this day."

Blount chuckled when asked about the Mel Blount Rule which the NFL instituted because of the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder's "bump and run" pass defense which overpowered receivers.

"It stemmed from the 1976 season when our defense was dominating," Blount said of the rule change. "We had a great front four, great linebackers and great people in the secondary."

Noted for his physical play, Blount and his teammates jammed the receivers and wouldn't let them get off the line and get into their routes.

Browns' coach Paul Brown was on the competition committee, along with Dolphins' coach Don Shula, and they were especially looking at the play of the cornerbacker and thought something needed to be done to free up the receivers.

"They came up with the rule and called it the Mel Blount Rule because I was a bump-and-run specialist," he said. "They blame me for it, but it's an honor. The older I get it's something to know that rule has changed the game entirely on offense."

As for the current controversy over the New Orleans Saints' bounty hunters and the suspension of the team's coaches and several players, Blount called it "unfortunate."

"There isn't any place in the game for that," he said. "It all goes back to people with character. I think the commissioner is doing the right thing."

Blount thinks the game would change for the better with improved equipment.

"Make sure the athletes have the best and most modern equipment because they are bigger, faster and stronger," he said. "Otherwise, I think football is in great shape. It continues to evolve."

Following his playing days, Blount worked for Commissioner Pete Rozelle as Director of Player Relations for the NFL from 1983 to 1990. He also became active in charity work and founded the Mel Blount Youth Home for victims of child abuse and neglect in his hometown of Vidalia, Ga., in 1983. In 1989, he opened a second youth home in Claysville, near Pittsburgh.

Blount still follows the Steelers closely, though.

"Once a Steeler, always a Steeler. You breathe it, you live it," he said, "We follow the Steelers and we love the Steelers. The young players ... they've won two Super Bowls since we won four and it's just a great family to be a part of."

(sports@altoonamirror.com)

Sunday, May 06, 2012

A man's story worth telling

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/
May 6, 2012


Former Pirates pitcher Dave Giusti doesn't bother knocking. His friendship with longtime teammate and Upper St. Clair neighbor since 1972, Steve Blass, is well beyond that. Giusti blows into the Blass house, accepts a beer, plops down on the back patio and commences to swapping stories. These guys are so entertaining they should write a book.

One did, actually.

Blass' "A Pirate For Life" is in the local bookstores.

It's almost as much fun as sitting with the fellas on a gorgeous spring afternoon.

"I thought I had a story worth telling," Blass said. "You can go through something bad career-wise and it doesn't have to destroy you. Work is what you do, it's not who you are."

Few athletes hit the heights that Blass did. He was a World Series hero for the Pirates in 1971, pitching two complete-game wins against the Baltimore Orioles, including the Game 7 clincher. No less than home-run king Hank Aaron told him he had the best slider in the National League.

On the flip side, few athletes crashed and burned the way Blass did. In '72, he was an all-star, finished second in the Cy Young voting and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In '73, he couldn't throw a strike. In '74, he was back in the minors. After briefly trying again in spring training in '75, he was out of baseball at 32.

Before the book, Blass never truly revealed his torment to anyone, not even to his family. He always laughed when people talked of other players with control problems having "Steve Blass Disease." But he was crying inside. "Many nights, I would sit in this backyard by myself until 3 or 4 in the morning and keep asking, 'Why is this occurring?' I never had a sore arm. I thought I was going to pitch forever. I just wanted to know why this was happening to me."

Blass never did get his answer or find a solution. Certainly, he tried everything, meeting with a hypnotist and a psychologist, practicing transcendental meditation, even switching to loose underwear because a hunter wrote to him that tight underwear threw his aim off.

Read More: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/ron-cook/cook-a-mans-story-worth-telling-634596/

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Pedro Alvarez, Bucs not quite buying into streak yet

By Stan McNeal
The Sporting News
http://aol.sportingnews.com/mlb
May 3, 2012


ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 29: Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on April 289 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS—Pedro Alvarez gave the Pirates more reason to hope Thursday afternoon at Busch Stadium.

He hit a go-ahead homer, his seventh, and extended his hitting streak to six games with a 2-for-4 performance that lifted his average to .257 in a 6-3 victory over the Cardinals. While not quite Matt Kemp-like, the Pirates will take it.

You would, too, after what Alvarez endured last season and the start of this one. Most of baseball was this close to stamping the former No. 2 pick a bust after Alvarez followed his awful 2011 (.191) with an appalling spring training (.170) and abhorrent start (2-for-30).

Ten productive days after such an abysmal year don't mean much but the Pirates are finding encouragement beyond Alvarez's numbers. They see great signs in Alvarez's swing these days.

"His head is quiet," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's got good balance. His front foot is down, he's hitting from a power position stroking the ball the other way."

But enough with the technical stuff. The real reason Hurdle is happy with Alvarez's swing is that the Pirates are seeing more of it. Alvarez didn't bother to take the bat off his shoulder last year more times than Hurdle cares to remember.

"There was just a high percentage of called strikes for the longest period of time, from last season and early on this season," Hurdle said. "Last season, in 33 percent of his at-bats (actually 28 percent), he hit from an 0-2 count. That's not a formula for success for anybody."

Understandably shaken from his first failures, Alvarez is not about to get carried away with a 16-for-40 stretch or that, in 70 at-bats, he already has three more homers than he had in 235 at-bats last year. Ask him if his hitting is in a good place, and he shrugs.

"I feel better," he said.

So that's not quite good?

"I feel better," he repeated.

His hitting coach, Gregg Ritchie, has been working with Alvarez on a changed approach. Known as a pull hitter, Ritchie wants the lefty swinger to think of the right-field foul pole being in right-center field rather than down the right-field line, which allows Alvarez to stay back longer on the pitch. When asked how this has helped, Alvarez casts a wary look.

"I have just been going up there trying to compete," he said. "That's been the biggest thing. Just trying to keep things simple, see the ball and hit the ball."

"Bull Durham" clich├ęs aside, are you seeing the ball better?

"Just write what I said," he said. "That would be good."

Alvarez, 25, says this not to be difficult. He does not want to overthink his successes like he did his failures last year. "I'm sure that was part of it," said Alvarez, who won't use last year's early quad injury as an excuse, either.

Does he believe he has turned a corner this year? "I'm focusing on competing every time I step in the box," he said.

Hurdle isn't ready to be proclaiming Alvarez as worthy of his $6 million bonus, either, calling the recent run "very encouraging and another positive step forward."

Alvarez took a huge step in the right direction in the sixth inning when he knocked a full-count slider from Jake Westbrook 408 feet over the fence in left-center. The two-run blast was the first homer allowed this season by the righthander and helped the Pirates salvage a victory in the three-game series.

"He crushed that ball," Hurdle said after the game. "He's finding a way to drop some other hits along the way that are helping because he is swinging the bat. You don't get hits when you don't swing the bat."

Alvarez isn't the only Pirate swinging the bat better these days. Though they still rank last in the majors in runs, the Pirates have had their three highest-scoring games since Sunday, with outputs of 9, 7 and 6 runs.

Their pitching has been there much of the season, including Thursday when Erik Bedard became the first Buc to strike out seven in a row and the staff finished with 17 Ks.

And now they head home, where the weather soon should be turning warm and where they will spend most of May. Starting with Friday night's game against the Reds, 18 of the Pirates' next 25 games will come at PNC Park.

"It's still somewhat early," said Andrew McCutchen, who left Thursday's game because of the stomach flu. "Bats are starting to open up a little bit, and we're starting to score some runs."

Thanks mainly to Alvarez, who is hitting .400 over his past 11 games after hitting .067 in the first 10. Besides taking the team lead in homers, he also leads in RBIs. As modest as it might be, his hitting streak already is two games longer than any he put together in 2011.

Just forgive him for not being overly excited. It takes a lot to overcome the disappointment of a year like that. But based on how he's swinging these days—namely, that he is swinging—it's safe to say his worst is behind him.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Pens' off-season a Staal tale

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
http://www.timesonline.com/sports/
April 30, 3012


BOSTON, MA - APRIL 03: Jordan Staal #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes the puck in the second period against the Boston Bruins on April 3, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Penguins general manager Ray Shero once told me, quite definitely, he would not trade Jordan Staal.
But three straight disappointing playoff exits can change a lot.
Assuming the NHL's new CBA still has a salary cap, the Penguins may conclude they can't keep all three of their star centers. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are going to want cap max when their deals come due in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Staal won't get that, but may be a $7 million player.
All it takes is one team.
The Penguins won't trade Crosby. He's the face of the franchise and hockey's best player.

The Penguins won't trade Malkin. He's got some maddening traits, but he provides superstar insurance should Crosby's concussion problem recur. The Penguins have had the game's top player virtually non-stop since 1984. It's a nice marketing tool. It sells tickets and merchandise. Wins games, too.

That might make Staal odd man out.

If Shero isn't loath to deal Staal, he should be. Two-way behemoths like Staal win championships. His shorthanded goal vs. Detroit in Game 4 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final was a pivotal moment in that series. He was the Penguins' best player in this year's first-round loss to Philadelphia.

Staal is a big-game performer. But the Penguins can't stand pat after what happened. They might, but they shouldn't.

Staal won't fetch great return, not with just one season remaining on his contract. His biggest value might be enabling the Penguins to ditch defenseman Paul Martin, an excruciating bust since joining the team via free agency in 2010.

Want Staal? You've got to take Martin, too. The Penguins might get nothing much in return besides cap space.

Two interesting rumors are out there:

One moots the idea of trading Staal to Edmonton for the first pick in the draft. The Oilers have a promising young team, and Staal - still only 23 - would be the perfect cornerstone: A talented, youthful leader with countless veteran qualities.

The likely No. 1 choice is high-scoring Russian winger Nail Yakupov. The Penguins would get a monster talent at a position of need on a three-year entry-level contract.

For the deal to make sense for Edmonton, the Oilers would have to negotiate an extension with Staal before the fact. It's mindless speculation, but there would be benefit both ways.

The other scenario holds that the NHL's three Staal brothers -- Jordan, Carolina's Eric and the New York Rangers' Marc -- want to play on the same team and will soon begin pursuing that. Intriguing, but unbelievable. It's not like the Staals to indulge fantasy and ego. Such a possibility might be fun beer talk during summers in Thunder Bay, Ontario, but nothing more.

For a star athlete, Jordan Staal's ego is minimal. But he has ambition.

If that ambition went beyond being a third-line center, would you blame him? If he declined the chance to play between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy in perpetuity, would you blame him?

When Staal played second-line center in Crosby's absence, he produced. When Crosby returned, Staal was a third-liner again. His place in the pecking order was clear. Discouraging? You bet. There's no denying the talent of Crosby and Malkin. There's also no denying Staal deserves a chance at better.

But that chance may never come in Pittsburgh.

Then again, would it be much fun to be first-line center in, say, Columbus? Be careful what you wish for.