Saturday, August 31, 2013

Cards can't touch Liriano's slider ... again

By ESPN Stats & Information |

August 30, 2013

The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are now even in the NL Central race and the equalizer in that matchup has been Pirates starter Francisco Liriano

Liriano is 3-0 with an 0.75 ERA and 0.63 WHIP in three starts against the Cardinals this season. He set a career-high by winning his 15th game against them Friday night, with eight scoreless, two-hit innings. He is the first Pirates lefty to win at least 15 games in a season since Zane Smith and John Smiley did so in 1991. 

Liriano has held the Cardinals to a .127 batting average, matching their lowest batting average against any pitcher with three starts against them in a season since divisional play began in 1969 (they also hit .127 against Hideo Nomo in 1995) 

Remember this past offseason when Liriano was unwanted by most. He’s proven to be one of the smartest investments of the winter. Let’s take a closer look at how he’s fared. 

How He Beat the Cardinals 
Liriano had his dominant slider working on Friday, just as he did against the Cardinals a month ago. 
The Cardinals were 0-for-9 in at-bats ending with that pitch, including four strikeouts. Seven of those nine outs came with two strikes. The Cardinals were hitless in 11 two-strike at-bats against him. 

Liriano did his best to keep the ball away from Cardinals hitters. They were 1-for-13 in at-bats that ended with a pitch on the outer-third of the plate or off the outside corner. 

He’s thrown 102 sliders in the three starts against the Cardinals, netting 32 outs and yielding only four hits and one walk. 

They’ve been equally feeble against his changeup, with one hit and 21 outs against that pitch this season. 

Liriano has had lots of success with his changeup in the past, but this has been his best year with his slider, a pitch he’s throwing at about 87 mph, up a mile per hour from last season. 

Most notably, he’s only given up seven extra-base hits (two homers) on the 728 he’s thrown this season. 

In 2012, he allowed 15 extra-base hits (including six homers) with his slider, a rate of one about every 59 thrown. 

Want to know how good Liriano’s slider was? The Cardinals had four hitters in their lineup with a .300 or better batting average. They made seven outs against the 15 sliders Liriano threw them. 

Home sweet Home 

Liriano has been ridiculously good at home this season. He’s 8-1 with a 1.21 ERA at PNC Park, with wins in his last six starts there. 

The 1.21 ERA is the best of anyone who has thrown at least 50 innings in his home ballpark this season. 

Liriano has allowed two earned runs in 35 innings in his last five starts at home. 

Looking Ahead 
The Cardinals can consider themselves fortunate that they should miss Liriano when these teams meet again in St. Louis next week. He thus won’t have a chance to become the first starting pitcher to beat the Cardinals four times in a season since Greg Maddux in 1992. 

Instead, he’ll face the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday. Liriano is 3-0 in his last four starts against the Brewers, including 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in two starts against them this season.

Photo: AP

Jones, Liriano, Pirates beat Cards for Central tie

AP - Sports 31, 2013
Pittsburgh Pirates' Garrett Jones (46) hits a solo home run off St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller (40) during the fourth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Photo: Gene J. Puskar
Garrett Jones (46) hits a solo home run off St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller (40) during the fourth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle gave Garrett Jones a few days off this week, freeing the first baseman to explore ways to work out of a miserable funk that threatened to banish him to the bench indefinitely.
A lot of time in the batting cage and a couple of helpful hints from a new teammate provided Jones with the confidence boost he desperately needed.
Jones hit his 100th career home run and drove in four runs as the Pirates beat St. Louis 5-0 on Friday night to move into a tie with the Cardinals for the lead in the NL Central.
''Big game, big series,'' Jones said. ''I made some adjustments and took it into the game and I felt good. I felt aggressive and strong and it was nice to be able to contribute to the win.''
A pep talk from outfielder Marlon Byrd helped. The veteran, acquired by the Pirates in a trade with the New York Mets on Tuesday, pulled Jones aside and delivered some advice culled from 12 years of bouncing through seven big league cities.
''He came up to me and said you're a guy who can hit 30-40 home runs,'' Jones said. ''He started talking to me about hitting and the few things he mentioned to me just made a lot of sense.''
Hard to argue with the results. Jones finished with three hits while matching his entire RBI total for the month in one night.
Russell Martin added his 12th homer of the season for Pittsburgh. Jose Tabata and Neil Walker got two hits as the Pirates moved within four victories of their first winning season in 21 years.
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Pittsburgh Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Photo: Gene J. Puskar
Francisco Liriano (47) delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Pittsburgh Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP
Francisco Liriano (15-6) allowed just two hits over eight innings, walking two and striking out six to reach the 15-win plateau for the first time in his eight-year career. The left-hander struggled in his previous start last weekend in San Francisco but bounced back with one of his most dominant performances of the season.
Liriano credited his resilience on a newfound maturity that allows him to move on quickly following a rough night.
''Whatever is done is done, nothing you can do about it, just focus on the next start,'' Liriano said.
Having an early lead to work with certainly helped. Jones came in hitting just .119 in August but broke out against St. Louis starter Shelby Miller (12-9).
Jones hit a two-run double in the first inning to give Pittsburgh the lead, added a moon shot to the seats in right field off Miller in the fourth and followed it up with an RBI single in the fifth.
''Garrett put in a lot of work and it paid off big time for us,'' Hurdle said.
The Cardinals came in surging after they erased a four-game deficit earlier this month. St. Louis arrived at PNC Park with a one-game lead and a chance to create some breathing room over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati heading into September.
Instead, things tightened up after Miller again struggled to get outs against the Pirates.
The rookie right-hander is in the midst of a breakout season but fell to 0-4 versus Pittsburgh, though his hitters haven't done him any favors. The Cardinals have produced just one run in Miller's four starts against the Pirates.
Miller lasted just 4 1-3 innings, giving up five runs on eight hits, walking three and striking out three. He struggled with his command, twice walking Liriano - who came in hitting just .075 - on four pitches.
''I made some mistakes with some pitches and they put good swings on them,'' Miller said. ''At the end of the day, they were better than us. I was just battling all night. It wasn't a good night.''
It certainly was for Liriano, who is in the midst of a mid-career revival with the Pirates.
The 2006 All-Star pitched a complete game in a 5-1 win at St. Louis two weeks ago and was even sharper in front of a packed PNC Park that is still getting used to being in the thick of a pennant race.
The Cardinals managed only one runner in the last six innings, and no one got past second base in the entire game.
''They're waiting for him to make a mistake out of over the plate but he's not making many mistakes then you don't have too many options,'' St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. ''We hit some balls hard but not enough of them in a row then we gave him the lead and that made it even tougher for us.''
NOTES: Pittsburgh All-Star closer Jason Grilli will pitch one inning for Double-A Altoona on Saturday as he continues his rehab from a strained flexor tendon in his right forearm. Grilli has been on the 15-day disabled list since injuring the arm against Washington on July 22 ... The Cardinals bolstered their bullpen on Friday when they acquired reliever John Axford from Milwaukee. ''There's a lot of experience there, a lot of upside,'' Matheny said. ''It's hard to forget that two years ago this guy was one of the top relievers in the game.'' ... Lance Lynn (13-8, 4.02 ERA) starts for the Cardinals on Saturday against A.J. Burnett (6-9, 3.18).

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Pirates fans feel the angst -- and that's a good thing

August 28, 2013
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) delivers a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning of a baseball game on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Don Wright

Charlie Morton (6-3, 3.14 ERA) delivers a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning of a baseball game on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Don Wright/AP

You can forgive Pittsburghers for feeling a little nervous these days. Pirates fans have been traumatized by 20 straight years of losing, an unprecedented streak in major American sports, and one that was made even more agonizing by late-season collapses in both 2011 and '12. The fans' fears this season about the quality of the team's lineup, except for center fielder Andrew McCutchen, seem to have been realized since the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, which brought in the likes of Robert AndinoRuss Canzler and Kelly Shoppach rather than Justin Morneau, or Alex Rios, or even Giancarlo Stanton. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh's second-best offensive player, left fielder Starling Marte, suffered a contusion on his right hand on Aug. 18 that took him, in a matter of days, from "scratched" to "available off the bench" to "on the disabled list" to "unable to swing a bat for several weeks."

McCutchen has continued his virtuosic play, hitting .422 in August and thrusting himself into the National League MVP race, but his teammates have by and large not followed his lead. The Pirates rank 21st in runs scored for the month, with 92 (just 3.8 per game), and they have a record of 11-13. On Monday night, they fell out of first place in the N.L. Central for the first time since July 29. Anxious columns, like this one, are now being written by longtime local newspapermen. That the club acquired outfielder Marlon Byrd from the Mets on Tuesday might help soothe some nerves in the Steel City, but probably not much. Pros: Byrd is having a from-the-blue career year, batting .285 with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs. Cons: He is 36, and he is Marlon Byrd.

Some perspective is in order. Those two decades of losing? They are over. For Pittsburgh to finish with a losing record, they would have to go 5-26, or worse, the rest of the way. And it is now exceedingly likely that the Pirates' string of seasons without a playoff appearance, which also stands at 20, will soon come to an end. The bifurcation of the National League (where teams seem to be either really good or really bad) combined with the extra Wild Card berth instituted last year, means that only two clubs -- the Diamondbacks (who trail the Bucs by eight games) and the Nationals (who trail them by ten) -- have any shot at all of denying Pittsburgh a spot in October. Baseball Prospectus puts the Pirates' chances of reaching the postseason at 97.8 percent. Pittsburgh is close enough to reaching the postseason that it can start thinking about a magic number, 24 in this case.

The hand wringing actually has less to do with if the Pirates will have a winning season, or if they will make the playoffs, than with how they will fare once they get to the postseason. Their home in stunning PNC Park seems built to host a big game on a crisp fall night, something it has never done before. But if PIttsburgh drops to the second Wild Card position, there remains the distinct possibility that the park still wont see playoff baseball, which it won't if the Pirates lose the resulting one-game playoff on the road. The postseason ticket plan the club released Monday might yet go unneeded.

When I interviewed Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington for my July SI cover story, he made clear that while he embraced his city's heightened expectations -- "That's a wonderful dynamic shift, that now they expect that we're going to be one of those teams playing in October," he said -- he was committed to maintaining his own sense of hard-earned perspective. "We're trying to build something here that's not just about one year," he said. "We want to play meaningful games every September, and hopefully October, for as long as we can keep that competitive window open."
Keeping the Pirates' window open past 2013 meant that Huntington had to make the difficult decision to not add another star-level bat via trade because he deemed the asking price, in the form of top prospects, to be too steep. "We were willing to do something stupid -- we just weren't willing to do something insane," he explained to reporters after the deadline. It wasn't that he didn't want another bat nor that he didn't recognize the usefulness of having one.

Later he explained, "The quickest way to head in the wrong direction is to move too much talent, too much minor-league talent, for a shot to win one time. That's the quickest way to undo all the good that you've done."

It is understandable that some fans, particularly those in Pittsburgh, would want their favorite teams to do all they can to win now. The desire for instant gratification is part of being human. In the late 1960s, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted a celebrated series of experiments in which he placed children alone in a room with a single marshmallow and promised them that they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow if they could wait 15 minutes before eating the first. More than two-thirds of Mischel's subjects could not wait.

But in baseball just reaching for the first marshmallow (that is, an immediate World Series run) does not mean that you will necessarily get it -- and you might only get one shot, as Huntington knows. Of course, those future rewards are also not guaranteed. Just ask the scuffling Nationals, whose decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg late last summer is now being second-guessed.

Still, the Pirates' decision not to do "something insane," as Huntington termed it, for a one-shot chance at a championship in 2013 -- and, let's be honest, a long shot chance, given baseball's difficult and convoluted playoff structure -- seems to be the prudent one. They might yet get another star bat anyway (especially as negotiations for the Twins' Morneau, who has cleared waivers, are said to be ongoing), and they will be also positioned to take many more shots in the years to come. The 26-year-old McCutchen is under contract through 2018, and the talented prospects on whom Pittsburgh has maintained a white-knuckled grip -- particularly starter Jameson Taillon, outfielder Gregory Polanco and shortstop Alen Hanson -- are soon to join him, as well as future ace Gerrit Cole, in the big leagues.

The anxiety for Pirates fans might seem overwhelming at the moment, but that is partly because it remains such a new emotion. As Gwendolen famously says in Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, "The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last." Suspense, in sports, is a good thing, as it means that there is an outcome to care about. That's something that Pittsburgh fans haven't had for 20 years. The club's front office, wisely, is doing all it can to make the good times last.

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Byrd homers, Pirates top Brewers 7-1

WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

August 28, 2013

Marlon Byrd hits a three run home run in the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Brewers during the game on August 28, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Marlon Byrd likens joining a new team to the first day of school.
It took the well-traveled outfielder all of four at-bats to become one of the cool kids on the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Byrd celebrated his arrival to the NL Central pennant race with a three-run home run, an epic strikeout, two standing ovations and a curtain call in Pittsburgh's 7-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night.
Quite an entrance for a player who 24 hours earlier was playing for the New York Mets.
Thrust abruptly into the middle of a pennant race, Byrd provided the kind of immediate jolt the Pirates were looking for when they traded for the former All-Star along with backup catcher John Buck on Tuesday.
''You want to feel accepted,'' Byrd said. ''I felt accepted all day long.''
Smile plastered on his face from the moment he was introduced as the cleanup hitter, Byrd made an immediate impression, lining into a double play in his first at-bat. He followed that up with a 14-pitch duel against Milwaukee's Tom Gorzelanny (3-6), a showdown that ended with Byrd flailing at strike three before being serenaded with a roar on his way back to the dugout.
''That was amazing,'' Byrd said. ''I was upset with myself that I didn't finish the at-bat but to hear the fans cheering, that was a beautiful thing.''
No matter. Byrd repaid the favor and then some in the seventh, drilling a fastball from Milwaukee reliever Burke Badenhop into the bushes in center field for his 22nd home run of the season. The 35-year-old sprinted around the bases and was so lost in the moment he needed Pittsburgh ace A.J. Burnett to tell him to head back to the top step so he could tip his cap.
''Coming in I was so excited,'' Byrd said. ''It was 'Hey, get back out there.'''
Byrd's flair for the dramatic completed a night Pittsburgh (77-55) moved within five victories of the franchise's first winning season in a generation.
Josh Harrison went 3 for 4 with an RBI for the Pirates and Andrew McCutchen and Gaby Sanchez added two hits apiece. Charlie Morton (6-3) scattered five hits over 6 2-3 innings, walking three and striking out two to pick up his first career victory over the Brewers.
Not that Morton noticed. The right-hander called his futility against Milwaukee ''needless information'' because it has little bearing on the future.
''I think it's something people like to talk about because there's been some consistency in that regard but really what the team is doing really well is not thinking about yesterday or two weeks ago, it's the game today,'' Morton said. ''If it's the Brewers, it's the Brewers, so be it. This is a different year anyway.''
Gorzelanny yielded four runs on nine hits in 5 1-3 innings, walking one and striking out five. Carlos Gomez had two of Milwaukee's seven hits but the Brewers offered little resistance against Morton's steady dose of sinkers.
''Offensively, we hit a few balls that could have got something going but on the whole we just didn't do too much,'' Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said.
The Pirates did plenty, with their new slugger providing the finishing touch. Gorzelanny, who spent five seasons with the Pirates from 2005-09, can see Byrd's presence having a positive influence in the clubhouse.
''He's a good piece that they got,'' Gorzelanny said. ''He's a smart player. He plays the game the right way, he plays it hard. Having a ballplayer like this, who is always a tough out, is going to make their lineup better.''
The homer was more celebratory than critical after Morton handcuffed the Brewers to end years of futility against Pittsburgh's biggest nemesis. Milwaukee has won more than 70 percent of its games against Pittsburgh since 2007 and came in 4-0 against Morton.
That run of dominance is now over. Morton, still finding his way back from Tommy John surgery, dominated after some early trouble. The Brewers put four runners on base in the first inning but couldn't score and Morton took care of matters from there. He retired nine straight at one point and would have worked deeper if not for a rare mental mistake by catcher Russell Martin.
Leading by four in the seventh, Martin tried to pick Yuniesky Betancourt off first. The ball sailed into right field, allowing Scooter Gennett to score.
Byrd's long ball restored order and the Pirates exhaled while clinching the season series against the Brewers for the first time since 2006.
NOTES: Pirates LHP Wandy Rodriguez continues to deal with left forearm inflammation but will not require surgery. Rodriguez, who has been on the disabled list since May, was evaluated by Dr. James Andrews in Florida on Tuesday after experiencing discomfort during a throwing session. Rodriguez will resume throwing later this week ... Brewers prospect Johnny Hellweg was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year. Hellweg is 11-5 with a 3.16 ERA for Triple-A Nashville. The right-hander, who is 0-3 with a 10.97 in three starts with Milwaukee this season, will be recalled to the majors next month ... The series concludes on Thursday when Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole 6-6, 3.81 ERA) faces Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo (9-9, 4.61).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pirates do what winning teams do

Getty Images
The Mets' Marlon Byrd (right) and teammate John Buck celebrate scoring the tying run in the eighth inning against the Diamondbacks on August 9, 2013, at Chase Field in Phoenix.
August 27, 2013

This is what winning teams do.
No, there wasn't anything singularly spectacular about the Pirates' acquisitions Tuesday of Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the Mets in exchange for prospect Dilson Herrera and a player to be named later. No big names, no blaring headlines, no attaboys for some heist of the century. It wasn't the splash some had sought, nor the standing pat some had feared.
But, then, this situation didn't call for a splash, just as it didn't call for standing pat.
It called for smart.
It called for …
• Correctly identifying all positional needs
So long as the Pirates were winning big — and 23 games over .500 through July is pretty big — there shouldn't have been any mega-urgency to address needs. But it's been a blah 11-13 August, including the 7-6 loss to the Brewers by nightfall at PNC Park, and it can be blamed almost wholly on the bone-dry bats.
The urgency changed.
Look, I wasn't wild about how long this took, and I suspect neither was the fan base. All concerned would have been better off skipping Garrett Jones' 7-for-58 slog this month. But I applauded the team's prudence at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and I'll still applaud Huntington and Clint Hurdle for giving Jones and Jose Tabata a chance. Jones fizzled, but he was coming off a 27-home run season and was worth waiting on. Tabata actually justified the patience by producing.
Saturday will bring the waiver trade deadline. Huntington pushed it to the edge, but he also pulled it off.
• Finding the right help
There's not much to dislike about Byrd, a 12-year vet who can take right field right away, who'll cost the Pirates just $130,000 total, and who's having the season of his life: .285 average, 21 home runs, 71 RBI.
Can he keep it up at age 36?
Who really cares, so long as he keeps it up into October?
The only real doubts relate to Byrd's 50-game suspension last year for use of tamoxifen, a banned substance. And those doubts remain justified, given that the season of one's life tends to come, you know, a lot earlier in most lives.
Byrd's been strikingly forthright on the topic all summer, including this to the Daily News last month: “Why wouldn't anybody question it? Last year, I hit .210 with a home run and nine RBI in conjunction with testing positive. But I can take that and absorb that. Doesn't bother me at all.”
He maintained innocence then — claiming tamoxifen was taken for a chronic swelling of the chest — and still does.
Whatever the case, it's impossible to imagine the Pirates wouldn't have checked this out before putting themselves in position to hang out to dry. And as such, Byrd should fit well.
Same for Buck, a workmanlike backup catcher. All due respect to Tony Sanchez here, but a one-month rookie can't be your fail-safe.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

What if Steelers added Superman?

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu brings down the Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe during the first half Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, at Heinz Field.

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Sunday, August 25, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

It's entirely possible, I suppose, that even Troy Polamalu didn't know what he'd do until the Kansas City snap.
He'd sprinted right up behind the Steelers' defensive line, mane bouncing, helmet swiveling, eyes sizing up not only quarterback Alex Smith but also those around him.
Would he blitz?
Drop back?
Once receiver Dwayne Bowe lined up in the slot and looked toward Smith, Polamalu looked over at Bowe. This would be it.
Polamalu's feet shifted along with his attention and, once the play began, he didn't just follow Bowe across the middle but fairly strangled him. Smith looked longingly at Bowe, cocked once, but couldn't throw. This was it.
Never known for his imagination or improvisation, Smith essentially froze long enough for Ziggy Hood to sack him. And that was that.
The official scoresheet from the Steelers' 26-20 overtime loss Saturday night at Heinz Field will credit Polamalu on this play with … well, nothing.
His teammates know better.
“I'm telling you,” Ryan Clark would say later, “Troy is playing great, man.”
Let's hold off on that for a moment, if only because there's nothing inherently great about the play just described. Quality read, simple follow-up.
When linking greatness and Polamalu, there's got to be a cape, right?
Fast forward a bit.
On the Chiefs' second series, it was fourth-and-1 at their 21, and Andy Reid commendably threw preseason results to the wind and decided to go for it. Alas, so did Polamalu, back at the line and hovering like a hawk, but this time pouncing. He knifed through almost as quickly as the handoff to Jamaal Charles and sent Charles to the left, where he'd be stuffed by Hood and Jarvis Jones. Turnover on downs.
The official scoresheet again doesn't cite Polamalu.
Oh, you know it.
This isn't the savvy, stay-in-control Polamalu we've witnessed the past couple of years, hoping to merely limit the other team's damage, hopping to the sideline play after play, a fraction of his former superlative self.
No, this is Polamalu circa … when?
“Hmm, I don't know,” he tried answering me after the game. “But I do know that it's definitely the best I've felt in a long time.”
Don't doubt him.
Sure, he's 32 and he's missed 22 games the past four seasons. But these plays have been happening at St. Vincent and the South Side, too, and they haven't been seen by veteran observers since 2010, maybe back to 2008, when he had seven interceptions on the way to the Super Bowl.
No need to overthink the how: He isn't hurting.
With longtime personal trainer Marv Marinovich, Polamalu adapted from his holistic approach to conditioning to a more conventional one and looks positively ripped compared to last year. Separately, under the guidance of physical therapists, he's attacked scar tissue to address long-nagging calf and knee trouble.
Another solution was far simpler: Preserve his hardest football activity — for example, that ferocious 25-yard sprint at Smith that drew a roughing-the-passer flag — for actual games. Mike Tomlin has spelled him through drills, even given him two full days off.
“I've treated it like putting on armor in the offseason, cutting down on the wear and tear but still doing what I need to do to get strong and heal,” Polamalu said. “Being healthy at the end of last season, feeling like I had my legs under me, that allowed me to start training immediately. That helped, too.”
Clark, ever the blunt one, put it this way: “He's healthy, and that's it. He's able to practice every day, but he still took a couple days off in camp for soreness, which is smart. But he's running well, his weight's down, and I think that's been the main thing: He's in position to stay healthy. The freak accidents? You can't control that. But the muscle issues, pulls and things like that, this is the most he's been on top of that in three or four years.”
Clark shook his head.
“I'm excited just to have him out there. But to have him out there like this …”
Can't be overstated, huh?
There might be more wildly swinging variables to these Steelers than in a decade, and none take precedence over Ben Roethlisberger staying on the field. But for all the fuss over the rookies and other positional battles, it seems silly to me to think anything could make a bigger difference for this team than to have an all-time legend playing like, you know, an all-time legend.
No one will see it coming.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Passing issues at arm’s length

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, August 24, 2013, 11:18 p.m.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) gets away from Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson in the first quarter of an NFL preseason football game Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Don Wright
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) gets away from Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson in the first quarter of an NFL preseason football game Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Don Wright/AP
The last of the unopened boxes from the Steelers' bus ride from St. Vincent to the South Side was, of course, the one containing the passing game. Or, to be precise, the one in which the passing game was containing itself.
Let's face it: Partial playbook or not, all the first-team offense had shown through two moribund preseason games was a dink here, a Dwyer there and not much at all downfield. And there had to be at least a little apprehension, a little angst, especially in light of no longer having mainstays Mike Wallace and Heath Miller.
Yeah, that's how it felt Saturday night against the Chiefs at Heinz Field, too.
For a snap, anyway.
Because on the second play from scrimmage, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, spotted Antonio Brown sprinting down the left sideline behind corner Sean Smith, and away it went: 49 yards, first down … and maybe even simmering a few fears.
If that wasn't enough, Roethlisberger would go 13 of 19 for 166 yards with a touchdown, no picks and — the key here — seven completions for double-digit gains in one half of football.
Dig deeper, and there's more: On back-to-back plays in the second quarter, Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery for 21 yards, Emmanuel Sanders for 24. Brown had a 25-yard catch nullified by penalty. Sanders nearly had a 34-yard touchdown but juggled it on the way down. The wonderful rookie Markus Wheaton rightly made it into Roethlisberger's huddle, too, and took in a 12-yarder.
Ask me, and nothing mattered more from the 26-20 overtime loss to the Chiefs, certainly not the hollow outcome. This team is still all about Roethlisberger, all about getting the most it can from him.
“We were a juggling catch away from a very productive half offensively,” Mike Tomlin said.
Did I forget to describe the TD?
Thing of beauty.
Roethlisberger looked left, looked middle, stepped up, dodged a defender, felt another breathing down his back and then coolly, characteristically, looked all the way over to the right flat to find Jonathan Dwyer for an untouched 13-yard gallop across the goal line.
Roethlisberger wasn't available to media, but Brown told me the Steelers came out with a purpose: “Absolutely. Everything we did tonight was a building block, for us to develop a rhythm as we transition to when things count. There's a lot more to show, too.”
As for the play itself …
“We knew that team would come out in man coverage,” Brown said. “It was a great read by Ben and a great throw. Just a good connect.”
Ben being Ben?
Well, if it seems we're seeing a lot of that this preseason — the good and bad, if one fairly weighs the four sacks — it can't be coincidence. These plays don't even vaguely resemble the Todd Haley pocket-passer script the Steelers used for the first half of 2012 to mostly good effect.
To an extent, that's ominous. There can't be any doubt the Steelers' No. 1 priority through 2013 is Roethlisberger's health.
At the same time, if last season taught anything from the performance and production standpoint, it's that … well, Ben needs to be Ben. It's his offense. He's the star, and this is how he's most comfortable. He can't be a couch covered in plastic to avoid the next spill. He can't be bounded up in a box behind the line, required to release or relent within 2-3 seconds. He's got to be used in the way he's most effective, most intimidating.
Don't underestimate that last point. In all the times I've interviewed the Steelers' opponents on game week, Roethlisberger's unpredictability dominated the conversation. Even when he was hurt. Even when the team was reduced to that one dimension. They feared the unknown.
Football coaches just hate the unknown.
They also hate losing, which explains some of the somewhat forced angst over being 0-3 this preseason. Ryan Clark was among them, saying, “The objective is to win, and we didn't do that.”
Nice show, but come on. This was more solid all-around, including the all-important shoring up of the offensive line. Those long plays don't click without a few extra ticks.
Here's what's relevant from this one: For the preseason, Roethlisberger likely finished up — Tomlin rarely uses his main men in the finale — at 14 of 20 for 168 yards with a touchdown and pick.
Not terrific, not terrible, but very Ben-like.
Still nervous?
If so, here's betting the Titans' defensive planners are sweating it even more.

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