Friday, May 31, 2013

NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Round 3

May 29, 2013

The cream has risen to the the top and the past four Stanley Cup champions are all that's left in this year's tournament. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins - the two teams involved in the Jarome Iginla sweepstakes at the trade deadline, faceoff in the East. In the West, the top seed Chicago Blackhawks meet the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, who are in peak post-season form.
THN breaks down both of the conference final matchups. Who are you picking?.


How the Penguins got here: By getting stronger with every playoff game, especially after Tomas Vokoun solidified himself as their starting goalie (at least, as much as any starting goalie’s job is assured in the post-season). At the end of their second-round series against Ottawa, the Penguins’ ferocious offense had established itself as the best of the playoffs – at an average of 4.27 goals-per-game, Pittsburgh was more than a full goal better than the second-best team (Boston, at 3.17) – and allowed Vokoun to relax, knowing one mistake could be made up for. It takes an almost perfect game to beat this team right now.

How the Bruins got here: By getting a barrage of rubber on the opposition’s goalie (the Bruins lead the playoffs in average shots on net with 38.2 a night) and dominating in the faceoff circle (57.5 percent success rate, also the best of this post-season), Boston has managed to overcome a defense corps thinned out by injuries as well as struggles from some top forwards (hello, Tyler Seguin). Like the Pens, Boston also was firing on more pistons in the second round than they were to start the playoffs.

OFFENSE: It’s not that the Bruins don’t have depth and balance in terms of their offensive production. It’s just that the Penguins have more. Milan Lucic has been a force after being nearly invisible during the regular season, but for every positive story the Bruins have along those lines, the Penguins have at least one (see James Neal or Chris Kunitz) to match. Late-season addition Jarome Iginla has started to get in a scoring groove, but the same can’t be said for Jaromir Jagr. Oh, and in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh has the two top offensive dynamos in the series. EDGE: Penguins

DEFENSE: The Bruins have the best blueliner (Zdeno Chara) on either team and employ a more defensively-focused attack than do the Pens. Boston also has received a boost from the emergence of slick d-man Torey Krug, who has four goals in his first five career NHL playoff games. With injuries to a number of Bruins defensemen, coach Claude Julien has had to lean on Chara and the Penguins have got banner performances from Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, but Boston’s forwards help make their defensemen’s lives easier than the Pens do for theirs. EDGE: Bruins

GOALTENDING: Vokoun’s playoff numbers (a 1.85 goals-against average and .941 save percentage) are better than Rask’s (2.22 GAA, .928 SP), but the former has played five fewer games and still can be a roaming adventure in a way that Rask won’t be. Thanks to a number of blowout Pens wins, Vokoun hasn’t dealt with nearly as much pressure as Rask, who often plays better when he’s seeing more pucks directed at him. Vokoun can still play well, but he’ll be tested often by the Bruins. EDGE: Bruins

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Penguins’ power play is tops among all playoff teams at 28.3 percent and their penalty kill is third-best at 89.7 percent. The Bruins’ power play isn’t anything to sneer at (fifth-best at 21.9 percent), but their penalty kill (eighth-best at 81.1 percent) needs work. That area of concern for Boston gives a clear advantage to the Pens.EDGE: Penguins

PREDICTION: The Bruins are a great team with impressive experience and veteran knowhow, but with due respect to the Leafs and Rangers, they haven’t exactly asserted themselves against elite opponents in these playoffs. The Leafs crumbled in a Game 7 meltdown, and calling the Rangers offense an offense was offensive to actual offenses. The Pens, on the other hand, took a well-coached, resilient Senators team and ate them alive in short order. Pittsburgh is Boston’s first opponent that is a true equal and the energy the Bruins expended just to get to the conference final could catch up with them here.  PENGUINS IN 6


How Chicago got here: By the scant hair of Jonathan Toews’ chinny-chin-chin. The Blackhawks enter the conference final knowing two things. No. 1, they haven’t played their best hockey yet. No. 2, they’re going to have to if they have any hope of defeating the defending champions to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup final. Against Minnesota in the first round, the Blackhawks seemed to lollygag their way through the series. Against the Red Wings, they had to bear down and deal with an opponent that was much tougher and resilient and they prevailed…but just barely.

How Los Angeles got here: Just as was the case last spring, the Kings are riding an all-world goaltender in Jonathan Quick and combining that with a smashmouth, shut-down style of play that makes it almost impossible to run away with any game against them. They are unbeatable at the Staples Center, but do not have the luxury of home-ice advantage against the Blackhawks. Whether the Kings win or lose in the playoffs, you can almost bet the farm on the final score being 2-1.

OFFENSE: With this being the Western Conference, scoring is always at a premium. And by those standards, the Blackhawks are a bunch of gunslingers. They don’t have anyone with eye-popping offensive numbers in the playoffs, but there has been a remarkable amount of depth and scoring balance in their attack. The Kings, meanwhile, seem to take the attitude that all they need is one or two goals a game and their goaltender will be able to win it for them. And more often than not in the post-season, they’ve been right. The Blackhawks are averaging nine more shots a game than the Kings the playoffs. EDGE: Chicago

DEFENSE: Both teams give up about the same number of shots per game and are generally very good in their own end of the ice. The Kings have more offensive thrust from the blueline than the Blackhawks have. Each team has a Norris Trophy-caliber kingpin in its lineup – Duncan Keith for the Blackhawks and Drew Doughty for the Kings. The Kings are far more punishing in the defensive zone, while the Hawks rely more on positioning and transitioning the puck when they are in their own end. The Kings get the edge here, but it is ever so slight.EDGE: Kings

GOALTENDING: Simply put, Quick is channeling his inner Dominik Hasek in these playoffs. If he continues to do that and the Kings repeat as Stanley Cup champions, there is absolutely no doubt that Quick will repeat as the Conn Smythe winner. His goaltending is soul-crushing for opponents, who know they have to have an almost perfect chance if they want to beat him, which leads to them overplaying the puck in the offensive zone. Corey Crawford has been almost as good, but has a tendency to give up the occasional very bad goal. Quick leads the playoffs in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts and it’s not that close.EDGE: Kings

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Blackhawks have been as close to perfect on the penalty kill as you can get in the playoffs – allowing just one goal in 21 games and perfection in seven games at the United Center. Both teams have been proficient, but not spectacular, on the power play, which is curious given the high-end offensive talent each of them can throw over the boards when a penalty is called. EDGE: Chicago

PREDICTION: Neither team has much of an advantage when it comes to being rested, since both went the distance in their series and were taxed to the limit by very tough outs in the second round. This should be another classic, heavyweight bout where the teams will trade blows, both literally and figuratively, for seven games. The Blackhawks have the better offensive talent, while the Kings are the superior team at keeping the puck out of their net. And they are the defending champions who will not go quietly into the night.

Pirates stay hot, beat Tigers 1-0 in 11 innings

By JOHN PERROTTO (Associated Press)

May 31, 2013

Pirates stay hot, beat Tigers 1-0 in 11 innings
Pittsburgh Pirates' Russell Martin, top center, celebrates with teammates after hitting a walkoff single to deep center field off Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Luke Putkonen in the 11th inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, May 30, 2013. The Pirates won 1-0. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- For Russell Martin, it was all about staying positive.
The Pittsburgh Pirates catcher remained optimistic when theDetroit Tigers were seemingly putting runners on base in every inning. And he was still looking on the bright side when he stepped to the plate with a chance to win the game despite having already struck out three times.
Martin hit a bases-loaded single off the left-center wall in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Pirates a 1-0 victory over the Tigers on Thursday night.
''You've got to believe you can do it,'' Martin said. ''If you think you're going to fail then you're probably going to fail. It's all a matter of having a positive attitude and believing in yourself. Our whole team is like that right now.''
Neil Walker opened the inning with a sharp single to right off Luke Putkonen (1-1) and Andrew McCutchen walked. Gaby Sanchez loaded the bases by bouncing a single through the left side of the infield.
Martin then ripped a 2-1 pitch into the gap to give the Pirates (34-20) their 16th win in 20 games.
Martin came into the game having gone 4 for 29 in his previous eight games. However, he singled in the ninth inning and wound up with a multi-hit game.
''The great thing about Russell is he never takes his offense behind the plate,'' Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said ''He struck out his first three times up tonight yet he went right back behind the plate and it was all about the pitcher. That's why it was so good to see him come through at the end.''
The Tigers left 11 runners on base in losing their third straight.
''Baseball is always a hard game and tonight it was really hard,'' Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. ''That's what I always say, on-base percentage is great but the biggest thing is you need to drive those guys on base in. We had a hard time with that tonight. We've had a hard time with that the last few days.
Detroit was shut out by the Pirates for the second time in three days as Jeff Locke and five relievers combined on a nine-hitter. Bryan Morris (3-2) pitched a scoreless inning to finish.
''You know how good the Tigers' offense is, one of the best in baseball,'' Walker said. ''You feel like you're playing with a ticking time bomb when they don't score but you can't give enough credit to our pitching staff. They got so many big outs in this game.''
Detroit starter Doug Fister struck out 12 in seven innings and allowed four hits. Miguel Cabrera hit two doubles for the Tigers, including the 400th of his career.
Fister came in with a 5.20 ERA in five May starts after going 4-0 with a 2.38 ERA in five starts in April.
''I felt like I was executing well,'' Fister said. ''I was able to keep the ball down, move the ball in and out and make them hit the ball on the ground, which is the name of my game.''
Both teams failed to cash in on consecutive outstanding scoring opportunities in the middle innings.
Pittsburgh hit three singles in a row to start the fourth and Detroit had four consecutive singles to start the fifth.
Walker led off the Pirates' fourth with a single but was caught stealing at second base. McCutchen and Garrett Jones then singled to put runners on the corners but were stranded when Martin struck out and Travis Snider lined out.
In the Tigers' fifth, Matt Tuiasosopo and Bryan Pena hit back-to-back singles but Tuiasosopo was thrown out at home by Snider, the right fielder, while trying to score on Avasail Garcia's single.
Fister then singled to load the bases, but Omar Infante hit a grounder to third baseman Brandon Inge, who threw home to force Pena for the second out. Andy Dirks grounded out to end the inning, leaving the bases loaded.
Detroit missed more chances.
The Tigers had runners on first and second with one out in the sixth when Vin Mazzaro relieved Locke and struck out Tuiasosopo and got Pena to ground out.
Mazzaro escaped a first-and-third jam with one out in the seventh by getting Dirks to pop out and Cabrera to ground out.
After Infante doubled with two outs in the ninth, McCutchen, the center fielder, tracked down Dirks' drive to the gap in right-center to end the inning.
''It goes back to the staples of pitching we've been talking about since the start of spring training,'' Hurdle said. ''Have intent with every pitch and have conviction with every pitch and execution will follow. Our guys really executed and we were able to hold a very good team off the board for 11 innings, which is something we can feel good about.''
NOTES: Detroit RF Torii Hunter sat out with a bruised left elbow, which he injured Wednesday night when he was hit by a pitch from Morris. Hunter will miss games Friday and Saturday at Baltimore to attend his son's high school graduation in Texas, but expects to play Sunday against the Orioles. ... Tigers SS Jhonny Peralta was ejected in the top of the fourth inning by home plate umpire Manny Gonzalez for arguing a called third strike. Peralta went 0 for 2, ending his 10-game hitting streak. ... Pittsburgh 3B Pedro Alvarez was not at the ballpark Thursday after having dental surgery earlier in the day to remove two wisdom teeth. ... LHP Wandy Rodriguez (6-2, 3.58) will pitch for the Pirates against Cincinnati RHP Johnny Cueto (2-0, 2.76) on Friday night in the opener of a three-game home series. ... Detroit RHP Max Scherzer (7-0, 3.42) will face Baltimore RHP Miguel Gonzalez (2-2, 3.94) in the opener of that three-game series.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A closer look at Bruins vs. Penguins

Teams will bring distinct personalities, motivation into Eastern Conference finals

By Scott Burnside |
May 29, 2013

All great teams, all teams whose personnel find their names inscribed forever on the Stanley Cup, have a kaleidoscope of personalities. No team, least of all a championship team, is populated by automatons. Players are not robotic sentinels programmed to simply skate, shoot and check. Rather, they are flesh and blood, with personalities that help shape their individual games and the identities of their teams.
Here's a look at how these personalities may be brought to bear on the eagerly anticipated Eastern Conference finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins:

The Strong, Silent Type

Zdeno Chara
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsBruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is a formidable force to be reckoned with at both ends of the ice.

And oh yeah, in the case of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, tall. The 6-foot-9 Chara has been doing it all for years. He menaces opposing forwards, and when called on -- as was the case in Game 7 of the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs -- he positions his giant frame in front of opposing netminders. That's where he was when Patrice Bergeron's last-minute shot from the point sailed past an unknowing James Reimer, sending the game to overtime after the Leafs had led 4-1 midway through the third period. Sometimes you can see Chara riding his bike to and from TD Garden, a kind of bohemian behemoth. Or something like that. As one scout told us, Chara can play against anyone. And since he's averaging 29:13 per game in ice time -- the most of any player still hanging around the playoffs -- he likely will.
Brooks Orpik
Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesDefenseman Brooks Orpik skates softly at times but packs a wallop and is key to the Pens' success.

The Penguins have their own version, although Brooks Orpik isn't nearly as tall as Chara. But in terms of menace and in terms of importance to their teams, Orpik and Chara are similarly matched. Orpik won't provide the offense that Chara does, although Orpik did score in overtime in Game 6 of the opening round against the New York Islanders. Ask his teammates and one thing they will all say about Orpik is that he rarely leaves his emotional center -- something that is crucial as the stakes grow higher and higher this time of the year. Named after legendary coach Herb Brooks, Orpik is thoughtful off the ice while almost solemnly punishing on it, rarely jawing at other players, almost never fighting. If the Penguins need to protect a lead or shut down an opposing team's top line, Orpik will be on the ice.

The Straws

Boston Bruins
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesPatrice Bergeron has overcome problems with concussions and is one of the B's central figures.

Both teams are knee-deep in solid, veteran leaders. It is the way of champions. But each has a defined central figure, a player upon whose shoulders the decisive moments rest, a guy to whom all eyes turn at that central moment.
We've known the Bruins' Bergeron a long time, having followed him through concussion woes that at one point threatened to derail his career. He persevered and won an Olympic gold medal as a surprise addition to the 2010 Canadian team, a Selke Trophy as the game's best two-way forward and, of course, the Stanley Cup in 2011. Bergeron scored the Game 7 winner in '11 against the Vancouver Canucks, after it had seemed the Canucks would run away with the series in the early going. He has already increased his legend by tying Game 7 against the Leafs against long odds and then scoring in overtime to send the Bruins to the second round. Teammates talk about how Bergeron is the guy who sets the tone in the dressing room and away from the rink. He steps in if in-room ribbing gets out of hand, and he adheres to a strict fitness and diet regimen. In short, he is the ultimate lead-by-example kind of guy.
Sidney Crosby
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJust when it seems Sidney Crosby can surprise us no more, The Kid keeps getting better and better.

Interesting that there are more than a few ties between Bergeron and his counterpart in the Pittsburgh locker room, the guy who wears No. 87. It was Bergeron who was tasked with taking a young Sidney Crosby under his wing at the 2005 World Junior Championships, where a stacked Canadian team beatAlexander Ovechkin and a star-studded Russian outfit in the gold-medal game. Bergeron and Crosby have battled serious concussion issues. And, like Bergeron, Crosby is the guy around whom the team orbits. He has developed an uncanny ability to return from injury and pick up his play at an elite level. Crosby missed the last month of the regular season and the first game of the playoffs with a broken jaw, yet he leads all playoff performers with seven goals and is fourth with 15 points in 10 games. In the room, Crosby is as relaxed as we've ever seen him. Oh, the media scrums await him every day in two waves, one for television and the other for print and radio, but he lingers, chatting about other playoff series and elements of the game.
The interesting part of this series is that it's entirely likely that Bergeron and Crosby, two old friends, will face off against each other much of the time.

If You Don't Have Anything Nice To Say

Harry How/Getty ImagesBrad Marchand knows how to get under foes' skin, and Boston needs him at his feistiest in this series.

Isn't there always someone on each team who opposing fans and players already detest, or will learn to detest about two minutes after the puck drops? For these teams, the interesting part is that both "villains" have found ways to turn down the volume on the histrionics while remaining agitating, effective forces. Brad Marchand, who has developed a well-earned reputation as a kind of fierce, burrowing animal, has matured in the past couple of seasons, although we still imagine him in the '11 Cup finals speed-bagging Daniel Sedinwhile the rest of the Canucks looked on in disbelief and inaction. Marchand will have to continue to toe the line, digging at Tomas Vokoun and aggravating the Penguins' defense while not getting into penalty trouble. The speedy and skilled Marchand exhibits the kind of abandon that always plays well with knowledgeable fans, like those in Boston.
Shawn Thornton and Matt Cooke
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesMatt Cooke will need no introduction to the Bruins, who always seem eager to get their hands on him.

It's an interesting juxtaposition on the Penguins' side, as Matt Cooke is well-known in Boston as the player who delivered a cataclysmic blow to Boston center Marc Savard in March 2010. Recently, Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards compared Cooke to Bobby Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan. Even though it was an unfortunate and wholly inappropriate comparison, it gives some measure of the feelings in some Boston circles for the checking forward. Cooke, who speaks eloquently to his journey from a man on the brink, has been terrific this postseason, particularly in the first round against the Ottawa Senators, killing penalties and chipping in on offense. He also helps keep things light in the room, at one point holding a television reporter's microphone during an interview with stallmate Jussi Jokinen in Ottawa.

Renaissance Man

Andrew Ference
Michael Ivins/US PresswireBoston's defense, stretched thin by injury, would receive a jolt from the return of Andrew Ference.

One of the most interesting guys in this series is Boston defenseman Andrew Ference. We caught up with Ference periodically as he played in the Czech Republic during the lockout. He is into environmental causes and supports a host of local charities and organizations. He and his family are downtown Boston residents, as he has chosen to embrace living in the city since his arrival from theCalgary Flames via trade in February 2007. He also talks the game as well as anyone in the Bruins' room. He was wearing a walking boot as the last round ended, and injury and suspension have kept Ference out of the lineup for all but four games this playoff season. If he's able to return in the coming days, his presence would be a boon to Boston's depth along the blue line.
Len Redkoles/Getty ImagesWith each series win by the Pens, the steady Paul Martin is a step closer to leaving 2011-12 behind.

There's not necessarily a complimentary person to Ference in the Pens' room (not that the Penguins don't care about the environment; we're sure they do), but for us Paul Martin is an interesting character because he has traveled a difficult road the past year. Always a little understated at the best of times, Martin never fails to answer for what could have been a career-altering season a year ago. Martin's 2011-12 was so awful, GM Ray Shero asked him if he wanted a trade after the Pens were knocked out of the postseason in the first round. Martin insisted he wanted to stay, that he'd come to Pittsburgh to win a Cup, and that he would reward Shero for his faith. He has made good on such promises. Playing mostly with Orpik, Martin has been solid in his zone, playing almost exclusively against opposing teams' top lines. He's also chipped in significant offense. As of Tuesday, Martin was tied for third among all defensemen with nine points in the playoffs.

The Coaches

Claude Julien
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsClaude Julien brought Boston its first Cup since 1972, but life as a coach is a tenuous existence.

There is much that aligns Claude Julien and Dan Bylsma, but they have distinctly different backgrounds. Julien, essentially a career coach with just 14 NHL games to his credit as a player, worked his way from major junior to the American Hockey League to the NHL. He served inMontreal before a brief tenure with New Jersey, followed by his posting in Boston, where he won the Cup in 2011. Bylsma turned in a solid NHL career (he played in 429 regular-season games) before moving into a second career as a coach. Compared to Julien, Bylsma's career rise was meteoric; he had been coach of the Pens' AHL affiliate for only a few months before being asked to replace Michel Therrien in February 2009. The Pens won the Cup a few months later.
Both men are unfailingly polite and thoughtful, even though both work in markets where there is significant media attention. Both are former Jack Adams Award winners as coach of the year, and both are self-aware enough to realize that those accolades and the fact that both have won Cups in the past four years have little bearing on job security. Indeed, both teams struggled at times in the first round, and it's not beyond the pale to suggest both would have been looking for work had they not advanced.
Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins
Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty ImagesDan Bylsma rocked the boat by benching Marc-Andre Fleury, but the Pens haven't looked back.

Each has shown an ability to keep his team focused in difficult times, a reflection of their low-key personalities. Neither is afraid to make difficult calls, however, as Julien at one point benched popular winger Shawn Thornton during the '11 playoffs and then returned him to the lineup at a critical juncture, helping the Bruins overcome an early-series deficit. At times this season, Julien has played three rookie defensemen and the team hasn't missed a beat.
Bylsma, meanwhile, has yanked the only starting goaltender the Penguins have known in the playoffs since the last lockout, Marc-Andre Fleury, in favor of journeyman Vokoun, who has gone 6-1 with a .941 save percentage. Bylsma has also deftly manipulated a deep lineup in guiding the Pens to their first conference finals since 2009.

Alvarez, Pirates rally past Sanchez, Tigers 5-3

By WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

May 29, 2013

Jordy Mercer #10 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reaches on a bunt single in the seventh inning scoring a run against the Detroit Tigers during the game on May 29, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.(Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Anibal Sanchez spent six innings toying with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his electric stuff rendering the Pirates innocent bystanders.
When the Detroit starter finally wobbled, Pittsburgh wasted little time knocking him over.
Pedro Alvarez's two-run double sparked a seventh-inning rally and the Pirates streaked by the Tigers 5-3 on Wednesday night. Travis Snider added an RBI double and Jordy Mercer laid down a perfect suicide squeeze to cap the four-run burst and abruptly end Sanchez's evening.
''I don't think as a team we ever check out in the seventh inning,'' Snider said. ''We've had a lot of late comebacks we've had a lot of great rallies off bullpens and starters late in the game.''
The victory was Pittsburgh's eighth of the year when it trailed after six innings and pushed the Pirates to a season-high 13 games over .500 (33-20). Bryan Morris (2-2) picked up the win in relief of A.J. Burnett. Jason Grilli pitched the ninth for his major league-leading 22nd save.
Miguel Cabrera hit his 15th home run for Detroit. He flied out to the wall in right field with a runner on to end it.
Neil Walker - whose solo home run in the 11th inning produced the only run in a 1-0 Pittsburgh victory in Detroit on Tuesday night - provided the only two hits through off six innings off Sanchez. The righthander looked nearly as dominant as he did in his previous start, when he one-hit the Minnesota Twins.
Sanchez retired 16 of 17 batters at one point and appeared to have all the cushion he needed when Andy Dirks doubled home Don Kelly with one out in the fifth and Cabrera followed two batters later by poking a 92 mph fastball from A.J. Burnett into the seats in right field for his 15th home run, giving the Tigers a 3-1 lead.
Watching Sanchez buzz through the first six innings on just 67 pitches, Detroit manager Jim Leyland didn't even have anyone up in the bullpen when things quickly unraveled.
Garrett Jones singled with one out in the seventh, Russell Martin walked on four pitches and the floodgates opened.
''It was kind of a freaky thing,'' Leyland said. ''He just walked a guy and all of a sudden kind of lost it there momentarily.''
Alvarez followed by driving a ball to the wall in left-center, scoring both runners. Snider took the next pitch and hit it off the wall in right with Alvarez just beating the relay throw to put Pittsburgh in front.
''We knew as hitters we had to grind,'' Snider said. ''If he's going to make a mistake, it's going to be early. Pedro did a great job jumping on him early, so did Jones. Russell the same thing, getting on base. Before they were able to get anything going in their bullpen we were able to get to him in that inning.''
Snider moved to third on a wild pitch, then darted home when Mercer's bunt stopped just in front of the pitcher's mound. It's one of the few times the squeeze has worked for the Pirates under manager Clint Hurdle.
''It was kind of surprising,'' Mercer said. ''In those situations all you want to do is put it in fair territory somewhere. I was able to deaden it. It actually worked out really well for both sides.''
Sanchez allowed five runs on seven hits in 6 2-3 innings, walking one and striking out nine while his ERA rose from 2.38 to 2.79.
''I think I missed some pitches and they hit them,'' Sanchez said. ''I take responsibility, that's part of the game. Before that inning I thought everything was working good, especially location.''
Pittsburgh's late surge allowed Burnett to escape his fourth straight loss. The Pirates have struggled to support their ace this season and had scored just five runs total in his previous five starts.
The right-hander had issues with his command but managed to stay out of trouble until the fifth, when Kelly's leadoff walk started a three-run burst. Burnett gave up three runs on five hits, walking four and striking out four.
Burnett was long gone by the time Alvarez got things going. Tony Watson worked the eighth and Grilli - who struck out the Tigers in order in the 11th on Tuesday - stayed perfect in 22 save chances when Cabrera flied out.
NOTES: Detroit OF Torii Hunter sustained a contusion on his left elbow after getting hit by Morris' fastball in the seventh. Hunter said the pain made him ''dizzy'' but X-rays were negative. ... Tigers CF Austin Jackson is likely heading to Triple-A Toledo this weekend while he recovers from an injured left hamstring that's had him on the disabled list since May 12. Leyland said he'd like to test Jackson's hamstring before activating him ... A Pirates season ticket holder provided Grilli with a fish tank that includes three small sharks and a blowfish. Grilli and setup man Mark Melancon have nicknamed Pittsburgh's bullpen the ''Shark Tank.'' ... The Pirates are 24-1 this season when leading after seven innings ... The series concludes on Thursday. Pittsburgh's Jeff Locke (5-1, 2.45 ERA) will look for his sixth straight victory. Doug Fister (5-2, 3.65 ERA) starts for the Tigers.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


By Jack Moore

May 29, 2013


Jason Grilli polished off his 21st save of 2013 with aplomb against Detroit Tuesday night. He not only sent back Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in order, he struck out the side.
This has been the story of the season for Grilli, the new closer in Pittsburgh. Of his 26 appearances, 15 have gone three up-three down. He has yet to blow a save. Toss in his 1.14 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings and his All-Star resume is substantial.
If Grilli can stay healthy and get the All-Star bid, he'll become the 18th player in All-Star game history to make his first appearance at age 36 or older. An All-Star bid would be a tremendous achievement to crown a career defined by perseverance. It's also precisely where Grilli was supposed to be, except perhaps 10 years earlier.
Scouts were smitten by Grilli's ability dating back to his college days at Seton Hall University. Grilli was a freshman All-American in 1995 and earned third team All-America honors in 1997 as a junior -- his last season at Seton Hall, and the season in which he entered the MLB Draft.
"Reminds of Jim Palmer," Brewers scout Russ Bove wrote in a report on March 8, 1997. "Totally focused. All business. Raised five points due to total pitching package."
White Sox scout Doug Laumann agreed in a report filed eight days earlier. "Very good delivery and arm action. Does all the things we want in a pitcher. 30% chance to be [No. 1 starter]. 60% chance to be [No. 2 starter]. Considering scouts are reserved with their use of the "ace" label -- typically, there are only around 10 pitchers scouts would call true No. 1 starters -- Laumann's report is glowing.
Bove and Laumann each gave Grilli a first-round grade, imploring their teams select him at 13 or 15 respectively. Instead, the San Francisco Giants nabbed Grilli at fourth overall -- one pick after the Angels got Troy Glaus and one pick before the Blue Jays snagged Vernon Wells.
Expectations manifested immediately. Grilli raked in a $1.875 million signing bonus and shot to the top of the Giants prospect rankings per Baseball America following the 1998 season. He was a top-60 prospect upon signing and within the top-50 after showing excellent mechanics at Double-A Shreveport in 1998. He struggled in eight starts at Triple-A Fresno to close the season, but that was attributed to hitting a wall at the end of his first professional season.
Except the wall didn't come down. Then 22 years old, Grilli served up 22 home runs in 19 starts at Fresno in 1999 and was shipped out to the Marlins in the Livan Hernandez trade. Things didn't get any better in Florida's system. He allowed a 7.68 ERA at Triple-A Calgary and struck out just four more batters than he walked.
Grilli free-fell down the prospect rankings. He ranked eighth in the Marlins' system after 1999. His ERA remained above 7.00 for the first month and a half of 2000 until elbow injuries cost him his season. By the end of 2001, Grilli was down to 25th in the Marlins system. In 2000, Baseball America joked "his stock has plummeted to the point where you wonder if he shouldn't just go by" At the outset of the 2002 season, Grilli bit the bullet and underwent Tommy John surgery, a crushing denouement for Grilli's five-year crash.
From 2002 through 2011, Grilli went through every trial and tribulation reserved for the marginal player. He was traded twice times, once for cash. He was selected in the 2003 rule 5 draft. He spent three seasons out of the majors entirely between injuries and incompetence. In 2010, Grilli's career looked like it could be finished, as knee surgery killed his season before it started and threatened any future job prospects.
Grilli credits a friend he met during his rehabilitation as inspiration. He told The Star-Ledger of his experience:
"Baseball can try to weed out the guys that can't hack the tough times. I trained hard, man. A friend of mine in rehab who was an amputee put things in perspective. What she had to go through, and what I had to go through, there was no comparison. I thought if she can do the things she's doing, no doubt in my mind as an athlete I can put myself in position mentally to say I'm coming back."
Here are Grilli's failures in perspective. He was, for 11 years, one of 750 players allowed to participate in baseball at its highest level. At the time of his rehab, Grilli had appeared in 238 major league games. He had earned more than a decent living -- over $3.5 million including his signing bonus, as well as entrance into the MLBPA's pension plan -- and barring obscene financial irresponsibility, he had secured a decent life and more for his children.
Still, baseball doesn't relent. It heaps failure upon you game after game, season after season. The only way through is to shrug it off. Failure can become the only thing you think about as you arrive at the park, and then you've already lost. Maybe it wasn't so easy to shrug it off when Grilli was supposed to be the next Jim Palmer, at a time in his life when ambition and expectations can dominate the mind. Enter perspective. It gets a little bit easier when the infinitesimal nature of these failures in the big picture becomes apparent.
Grilli dominated at Triple-A Lehigh Valley in Philadelphia's system in 2011, his first professional stop after rehabilitating his knee. He recorded a 1.93 ERA in 32 ⅔ innings and struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. It wasn't enough to crack the Phillies bullpen, but the Pirates were intrigued and picked him up after Grilli exercised an out-clause in his contract with Philadelphia.
Grilli's fastball, praised by scouts for its solid velocity and sharp boring movement since he was a draft prospect, became a weapon. It still pushes the mid-90s. Most importantly, he has harnessed the control, as he has slashed his walk rates every year since his return to the majors. Paired with a vicious slider -- a classic closer combination -- Grilli has all the tools to thrive.
But then again, Grilli has always had the tools. It just took 15 years to figure out how to use them.

Bruins heavy underdogs vs. powerful Penguins

By Stephen Harris
May 28, 2013

Patrice Bergeron v Sidney Crosby

Talk to some NHL scouts and the general feeling about the Bruins-Penguins Eastern Conference title series is that the B’s can beat the super-talented Pens — but only if they play nearly perfect hockey and contain Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Pittsburgh stars.
“In my mind, they do have a chance — if they can shut down the Big Three: (Jarome) Iginla, (Evgeni) Malkin and obviously Crosby,” said one longtime pro-level scout. “If they can contain those guys, they’ve got a chance. If they can’t, then it’s going be an uphill battle for them.
“I think it is going to be an interesting series. I thought the Bruins played very well against the Rangers. Momentum and emotion are going to be a big part of it. I think the Bruins have to go down there and win one of the first two games.”
TSN analyst Aaron Ward, who knows the Bruins well (having spent two-plus seasons with the team through 2008-09), is a bit more upbeat about their upset chances. He didn’t exactly predict it, but he believes the B’s are going to present some serious challenges for the Pens.
And, yes, they can win.
“Oh, absolutely, absolutely,” Ward said yesterday. “The biggest thing for me — and this is for both teams — is who has the ability to adjust? If Boston is doing something that works well, how does Pittsburgh adjust? That’s one of the biggest questions for both teams.”
What Ward wants to see from the Bruins is not a team that reacts to what the Penguins are doing, but plays its own get-pucks-deep and attack-heavy game.
“You don’t play a reactionary game; you play a game where you instigate and play the way you need to play,” Ward said. “You can’t approach a game as though you’re going to respond to what the Pens bring; you have to be the instigators, the aggressors.”
And that means putting as much pressure as possible — with speed, aggressiveness and physicality — on the Pittsburgh defense corps. The Pens’ group of forwards may be the finest in the game, but their rearguard is fairly average.
Kris Letang is a obviously one of the most talented offensive defensemen in the league (3-13-16 totals in 11 playoff games), and veteran Paul Martin (2-7-9) is a good two-way performer. Ex-BC star Brooks Orpik is one of the most physical guys in the league (24 hits in eight games). Douglas Murray is big and slow, yet effective defensively. Matt Niskanen is OK both ways, and veteran Mark Eaton is a journeyman stay-at-homer.
It’s a group that does its job well enough but, if the Bruins are playing their effective forechecking game, faces a tough challenge.
“With Pittsburgh, if you’re looking for their Achilles’ heel, it’s that they’ve struggled with . . . defensive zone coverage,” said Ward.
“Get pucks deep and go down there and hit them. Make Letang and Martin go back for the puck and punish them every opportunity you get. And let’s see what the war of attrition brings to some of these skill guys.
“I think this Boston team presents to the Pens something that they haven’t seen: a D-corps with a little bit different makeup. The Penguins didn’t see a (defensive) stopper in Ottawa like (Zdeno) Chara.
“Malkin and Crosby at some points are going to cross the path of Chara for a good period of time. They didn’t encounter that kind of physicality in the first two rounds. With the Ottawa Senators, they were more concerned with containing, rather than punishing. I think Z is more of a punisher.
“If you look at how teams are built, the Bruins are just more of a complete team (than the Islanders and Senators). On depth alone, Boston presents a bigger challenge than the past two teams.”
Ward said the Pens sometimes have problems with a second wave of attackers — like Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson, who is so dangerous jumping up ice. That aspect of the B’s game plan has grown with the emergence of highly mobile, puck-carrying youngsters Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug.
“The Bruins have that now; they like to press up the ice,” Ward said. “You’ve got a guy like (Johnny) Boychuk, who likes to jump offensively. And if Torey Krug can consistently manufacture the same type of performances he had against the Rangers — where he’s aggressive, but also responsible — that will cause that team fits.”
Ward loved the play of the Bruins fourth line — whose members have produced 5-8-13 totals in the postseason — and it creates a tough test for the Pens. But he also likes Pittsburgh’s fourth line, with guys like Craig Adams, Tanner Glass and Tyler Kennedy.
“That will be an interesting matchup,” Ward said.
The Penguins, of course, feature prolific power-play talent and have produced 13 man-advantage goals in 11 playoff games. The Bruins will have their hands full trying to defend the Penguins attackers — and if that means taking a bundle of penalties, their series hopes go from longshot to impossible dream.
“For the Bruins, discipline will be a key factor,” Ward said. “If you look at the talent on the Pittsburgh power play, it’s tough to pick what part of the power play you want to try and shut down.
“I mean, if you take away Letang out high — and Martin has played pretty well, too — then they move the puck to those guys down low and they outnumber you down there. It’s a tough matchup.”
And speaking of tough matchups, how do you stop Crosby?
“Ah, well . . .,” Ward said after a long silence, “I don’t think you can. The one thing you have to do is, whenever he gets the puck, there has to be an immediate reaction by someone — to force him, block his path, slow him down. Because you see what happens when he gets a head of steam.”
Ward figures the decisions by Iginla and Brenden Morrow to accept trades to Pittsburgh and not Boston will add spice to a series that’s been eagerly anticipated by many.
“People have been looking forward to this,” Ward said. “We’re going to see what seemed inevitable: the two top teams in the East meeting up with each other.”