Monday, September 30, 2013

Former Steeler L.C. Greenwood Dies at 67

September 29, 2013
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Former Pittsburgh Steeler L.C. Greenwood, a four-time Super Bowl champion, six-time Pro Bowler and member of the legendary Steel Curtain, has died. He was 67.
Greenwood, No. 68, was a big part of the Steel Curtain. With four Super Bowl rings and regular appearances in the Pro Bowl, Greenwood has been a Steelers’ fan favorite from the late ‘60s on.
Greenwood died Sunday afternoon after a brief stay in a Pittsburgh hospital following surgery. A cause of death has not yet been released.
The defensive end was a part of the Steelers for 13 years, and was known for his gold shoes on the field.
Trouble with his knees would eventually force Greenwood and those legendary gold shoes to retire.
“I think L.C.’s greatest legacy is that he lived life to the fullest,” said former Steeler John Banaszak.
He was a 10th-round draft pick for the Steelers in 1969, and his contributions to the team continued until his retirement in 1981.
“As a player coming into this organization, the bar has been set high by these guys,” said former Steeler Charlie Batch. “They won four Super Bowls. What more can you expect when you come in and you see guys like that. And there are four Lombardi Trophies there to remind you of it.”
Although he was a native of Canton, Miss., Greenwood chose to make Pittsburgh his home after retirement as an entrepreneur with the formation of Greenwood Enterprises.
But it is his stats, his heart and his football prowess that touched the lives of teammates, fans and the Steelers that came after him.
“He made this his home,” said Batch. “He’s not originally from here, but Pittsburgh was his home, and he went out there and he never shied away from the fact that he was letting people know, ‘Hey, I live in Pittsburgh and I represent the city well.’ And when you see that, it’s just one of those things that anytime that he goes out there, he just wants to go out there and really show heartwarming spirit in everything that he did.”
“He was a gentle giant. He finished his career and he was a great businessman in the community,” said former Steeler Edmund Nelson. “L.C. was a mentor to me and my good golf buddy. He was just good people.”
The Steelers have issued a statement on Greenwood’s passing:
“L.C. Greenwood was one of the all-time great Steelers and one of the leaders of the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense in the 1970s. L.C. was one of the most beloved Steelers during the most successful period in team history and he will be missed by the entire organization. He will be forever remembered for what he meant to the Steelers both on and off the field. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his entire family.”
Greenwood is survived by one adult daughter and several other family members.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Roethlisberger: "We're worst team in the league'

September 29, 2013

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen sacks Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the first half of their NFL football game at Wembley Stadium, London, Sunday,Sept. 29, 2013. Photo: Matt Dunham
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen sacks Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the first half of their NFL football game at Wembley Stadium, London, Sunday,Sept. 29, 2013. Photo: Matt Dunham/AP
LONDON (AP) — With the Pittsburgh Steelers off to their worst start in 45 years, Ben Roethlisberger isn't mincing words about where the team stacks up against the rest of the NFL.
"Right now, you could say we're the worst team in the league," the Steelers quarterback said after Pittsburgh fell 34-27 to the Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium on Sunday. "That hurts."
With Roethlisberger sacked five times and harassed all day by Jared Allen and the Vikings, the Steelers dropped to 0-4 — their worst start since 1968 when they lost their first six games en route to a 2-11-1 record.
Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowls with Pittsburgh, acknowledged this is the lowest point of his career.
"We are in uncharted territory and the water is dangerous right now," he said. "It stings. I have to hope and believe we can turn it around. That's the approach I'm going to take this week and next week. I'm going to do the best I can to lead these guys and let them see how I go about my job."
With a bye week before facing the New York Jets, and mainly pride left to play to play for, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin put players on notice that jobs could be at stake.
"I have great patience," he said. "The team will work to get better. As long as I see belief and effort and we continue to improve, that's what's going to change the outcome of these games. If I don't, (they) ain't going to be a part of it, whoever it may be. It's that simple."
The challenge resonated with Roethlisberger.
"Yeah, I'd start with myself," he said. "We have to hold ourselves accountable."
Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel, starting in place of the injured Christian Ponder, finished 16 of 25 for 248 yards and two touchdowns as Minnesota won its first game after three straight losses. Adrian Peterson ran for 140 yards on 23 carries — including two touchdowns — and Greg Jennings had two TD catches.
Roethlisberger completed 36 of 51 for 383 yards and one touchdown, but also had one interception and a fumble. The fumble came in the final seconds after he led the Steelers from their 22 to a first-and-goal and potential tying TD at Minnesota's 6 yard line.
On third down, he was sacked by Everson Griffen and Chad Greenway stripped the ball. Kevin Williams recovered with 19 seconds left to seal Minnesota's victory.
"I'm thinking just try to do anything you can to get rid of the ball, throw it away, do something, and I couldn't manage to get it out," Roethlisberger said. "I'm holding it out like a loaf of bread because I'm trying not to just take it to the ground. They got it out late. Even if I'd held on to it, I don't know if we would have had enough time."
Roethlisberger hurt the index finger on his right throwing hand while completing a 15-yard TD pass to Jerricho Cotchery in the fourth quarter. He had the finger taped after the game but said it wasn't serious.
Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell made his regular-season debut for the Steelers and ran for two scores and 57 yards on 16 carries. Wide receiver Antonio Brown had 12 catches for 88 yards and Cotchery had 103 yards on four receptions.
"I felt like we made good strides on offense," Roethlisberger said. "It's just hard to say that and to feel very good about yourself after a loss."
The Steelers' defense gave up nearly 400 yards and again came up without a turnover. Pittsburgh is without a single takeaway this season.
This was the seventh time the NFL has played a regular-season game in London. TheJacksonville Jaguars will play the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 27.
"It was an experience, an unbelievable feeling to come out of that tunnel. It felt like a coliseum," Roethlisberger said. "It was special. I've been blessed to play in Super Bowls and to have the feel of something big like that was amazing."
Asked whether he'd support the idea of having a fulltime NFL franchise in London, Roethlisberger was less enthusiastic.
"As long as I'm not playing those eight," he said.

Chaotic Steelers a bloody mess

September 29, 2013

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is sacked by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen (97) and Chad Greenway (52) during the second half of their NFL football game at Wembley Stadium, London, Sunday,Sept. 29, 2013. The Vikings defeated the Steelers 34-27. Photo: Matt Dunham
Ben Roethlisberger (7) is sacked by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen (97) and Chad Greenway (52) during the second half of their NFL football game at Wembley Stadium, London, Sunday,Sept. 29, 2013. The Vikings defeated the Steelers 34-27. Photo: Matt Dunham/AP

LONDON — This, as the natives here say, is a bloody mess.
It's not just that your 2013 Steelers are 0-4 for the first time in 45 years, this after a far-worse-than-the-final 34-27 flogging from the Vikings on a historic and yet thoroughly forgettable Sunday at Wembley Stadium.
It's not even that, in the general sense and with gusto, the Steelers really stink.
It's that they're so much of a mess it's hard to know where to start. Or even what to make of their all-over-the-map reaction to it all.
A kind person might suggest that's natural for a franchise that's won for so long.
Anyone feeling kind?
Anyone feeling, gee, they were due for a down year?
For that matter, anyone feeling hope in any form for the foreseeable future?
Let me state this bluntly: The very best thing that can happen to the Steelers the rest of this season is to stop this from spiraling out of control. To stop the bleeding from this bloody mess.
And I'm not sure they can do even that little.
“More than anything,” Mike Tomlin said at his news conference before the first question, “we'll focus on getting better. That's what's going to change the outcome of these football games. Those that don't ain't gonna be a part of us. I have great patience. As long as I see belief and effort and continued improvement. If I don't … they ain't gonna be a part of it. Whoever it may be. It's just that simple.”
If only.
Meaning, if only we'd see the first sign of accountability.
If, for example, Dick LeBeau has Troy Polamalu sniffing up at the line every other snap, and the secondary has been burned for huge plays while not appearing to have, you know, safeties playing safety, might Polamalu drop back?
I asked Tomlin: “No, because it's about missed tackles.”
I asked Troy: “Our No. 1 goal is to stop the run.”
OK, hey, just stick with that, then. Because the rest of us must be blinded by all the times the Vikings threw deep against isolated corners.
If, for another example, Mike Adams can't even serve as a turnstile against the Vikings' terrific Jared Allen — a turnstile at least slows you down — um, why did he play?
I asked Tomlin: “You know, when Ramon Foster went down, Kelvin Beachum was playing guard. In terms of the people that we intended to be prepared to play this week, it's only a certain number who can. Anybody else we'd have put in would have been below the line in terms of preparation.”
Say what?
That's a clear reference to Guy Whimper, the backup tackle who by logical extension must be the world's worst at what he does to live below the Adams line.
But why fuss over Whimper's first-team reps when Adams was flat-out giving up on plays?
He occasionally conceded a path to the franchise's $102 million quarterback!
On the game's penultimate snap, with Allen his obvious assignment just to his left, Adams went to his right to double-team some other guy!
Never mind accountability for a disintegrating second-round bust. How about actual in-game accountability?
None of this is to suggest that Polamalu's positioning or Adams' Gandhi-style blocking or the potential Whimper cavalry were singularly decisive. I'm just citing examples. And I could cite a ton more, not least of which is the head coach's laughable plan to fly 3,761 miles a couple days before kickoff.
The accountability for that when Tomlin was asked if the itinerary was a factor?
It was a weird night. Off the field, too.
Tomlin was all over the locker room even after media were allowed, talking to players, asking questions, shaking hands. Never seen that.
Moreover, I'd never heard Roethlisberger say things like this: “Right now, you could say we're the worst team in the league. That hurts, but …”
Or this, when I asked if he shares Tomlin's stance that jobs should be lost: “Yeah, and I'd start with me.”
But I have heard Ryan Clark say things like this, which he reiterated: “It'll look like we're a bad football team. We don't believe that.”
Which is it?
The hard fact is, this team hasn't got a clue right now.
The offense looks like kindergarten chaos, with Roethlisberger either winging it or running for his life or both while the opponent somehow preps emergency quarterback Matt Cassel with a slick set of quick-release options.
The zero-takeaway, zero-contact defense has become such an embarrassment that Adrian Peterson waltzed through a hole the size of the English Channel for a TD not once but twice, something unthinkable for this group for the better part of a decade.
Jobs? Yeah, let's talk jobs. But let's not limit the topic.

Read more: 
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Steelers know challenge Peterson poses

By Scott Brown
September 28, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- One of countless measures as to why Adrian Peterson is the best running back on the planet: The Vikings star is perceived to have gotten off to a slow start even though he has rushed for 281 yards and three touchdowns in three games. 

One of countless reasons why the Steelers can’t think they are catching Peterson at a good time: He had 230 rushing yards through three games last year and finished with 2,097 yards -- eight fewer than Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season record. 

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonPittsburgh defenders know they're in for a battle Sunday against Vikings RB Adrian Peterson. "He fights for every yard," Troy Polamalu said.
Not that the Steelers don’t know what they are up against when they face Peterson and the equally desperate Vikings at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday. 

“When you watch film of him, you can have an even greater appreciation for how good he is,” Steelers free safetyRyan Clark said. “He’s more talented than everybody else, but he also tries to outwork everybody else. He runs like an undrafted free agent.” 

Combine a maniacal work ethic with freakish physical ability and it adds up to Peterson making a serious run at Dickerson’s record less than a year after tearing his ACL. 

What the Steelers referenced in regard to Peterson's greatness were the runs that don’t show up on "SportsCenter" or any other highlight shows. 

They are the shorter ones where Peterson makes something out of nothing simply because of the indomitable will that the reigning NFL MVP also applied to his recovery from a major knee injury. 

“He fights for every yard,” Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said. “That’s something a defensive player can really respect. We scratch and claw for every inch on defense. When you see somebody on offense that’s really doing that and not running out of bounds, you get a lot of respect from defensive players for that.” 

The Steelers will show plenty of respect to Peterson, and not just when he runs the ball. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said the 6-foot-1, 217-pounder is also the biggest weapon in Minnesota’s passing game since play-action opens up the field for the Vikings receivers. 

The Steelers largely contained Peterson the only other time they played against him. 

He gained 129 yards of total offense and scored a touchdown, but the Steelers limited Peterson to just 3.8 yards per carry. 

If they can hold him to similar numbers in their second meeting, the Steelers have to like their chances to finally get into the win column this season. 

That is how important Peterson is to the Vikings offense. 

“We have to try to match his mental approach to the game,” Clark said. “Physically, he’s going to probably be one up on everybody but Troy [Polamalu], so for us we’ve got to be physical with him, get people to the ball and try to get him on the ground.”

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Five-tool Pirates center fielder McCutchen arguably National League's best

September 28, 2013
Andrew McCutchen is the odds-on favorite to win the National League MVP. The Pirates center fielder leads the NL in Wins Above Replacement (8.0). Teammates serenaded him with “MVP” chants and doused his dreadlocks with champagne Monday at Wrigley Field while the Pirates celebrated clinching their first postseason berth since 1992.
Eight years after being selected 11th overall in a historically rich 2005 draft, McCutchen is the class of the group and the league. He could become the Pirates' first MVP since Barry Bonds in 1992.
DNA gave McCutchen five-tool potential. Time matured his gifts. But it is through a drive to maximize his diverse athletic ability that he has become the NL's premier player.
On May 3, McCutchen uncoiled like a cobra on a 92 mph Ross Detwiler fastball. The ball left McCutchen's bat at 112.4 mph, the hardest-hit home run of his career, according to
McCutchen never has hit the ball with more force. His home runs this season have traveled an average distance of 404.4 feet and with an average exit velocity of 103.5 mph, both career bests. Rare power from a player listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds.
“For a smaller-stature guy,” teammate Garrett Jones said, “he has the power of any big guy out there.”
Where is the power derived? Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said McCutchen has rare bat speed.
“That's something that's God-given. It's like having a 100 mph fastball,” Walker said. “Most guys have to cheat a little bit when a guy is throwing 96, 97 (mph). He doesn't have to. That's what makes him so special.”
The quick bat is a gift.
“Bat speed has to do with every part of your body,” McCutchen said. “You generate your power from your legs. That's where it all comes from. When you go from your legs (to core muscles), it just coils up and fires. ... It's your quick-twitch muscles, all of that firing. You either have it, or you don't.”
But the added strength was created, not given. Prior to the 2012 season, McCutchen intensified his workout program. He spent six weeks at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., undertaking core-strengthening drills. He hit three opposite-field home runs his first three full seasons. McCutchen has hit 22 opposite-field home runs the past two years.
On July 27 against the Marlins, McCutchen lined a ball into the left-field corner at Marlins Park and ended up where few players do on balls hit to left field: third base. McCutchen sprinted from the box without hesitation.
Speed was the first obvious tool to scouts who clocked McCutchen run a 6.4-second, 60-yard dash as a prep star in Fort Meade (Fla.) High.
McCutchen's instincts regressed in 2012. His steals were down. He was not as aggressive going from first to third.
This season McCutchen has his best stolen base rate since 2010. He's more effectively moving from first to third. He's better studying pitchers' moves.
“Last year, I think there was a little bit of a glitch for him trying to find his way on the bases,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's back to being aggressive. His leads, his first-step movement, have improved.”
He graded as a below-average baserunner last season, according to Baseball Prospectus metrics, but he again rates as above average in 2013.Glove
In the seventh inning against the Marlins on Aug. 6, Miami shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria lined a ball into the left-center gap at PNC Park that looked like a double. McCutchen's perfect jump, perfect angle and fully extended dive allowed him to intercept the ball before it hit the turf. The catch saved two runs. The Pirates won 4-3.
His defense is, in part, athleticism: His closing speed cannot be taught. But McCutchen said defensive play — angles and reading swings — largely is learned.
“It's something you've done your whole life, so it becomes second nature to you,” McCutchen said. “I know he hit it off the end of the bat, so I was just trying to get myself in good position to have a chance to catch it, and that's what I was able to do. You work on those things during batting practice. When the game starts, you just let your instincts take over.”
According to multiple defensive metrics, McCutchen is having his best defensive season. He won his first Gold Glove last season.Hit
On Sept. 9 at Texas, rather than trying pulling a low-and-away 91 mph fastball from Joakim Soria, McCutchen rifled the ball into right field for what proved to be a game-winning RBI single.
It was one of three hits, one of 23 multihit games in the second half for McCutchen. But it was a hit indicative of his growth as a hitter.
“The way he's used the whole field, that's when I saw his game really take off,” Walker said.
McCutchen always has had the eye-hand coordination to be a .300 hitter. He was trained to be an all-fields, any-location hitter. As a boy, his father placed a broomstick in his hand and tossed him fishing corks wrapped in athletic tape. The knuckling game of soft-toss, repeated thousands of times, was designed to improve his bat-to-ball ability.
But by 2011, McCutchen had become too pull conscious. He pressed. He hit .259.
“I knew I was a lot better than that,” McCutchen said.
As he watched the postseason from his Florida home, he picked up a bat and tried timing pitchers via his flat-screen television. He was restless. He studied video of the best hitters in the game: Cabrera. Ramirez. Molina. He saw those hitters employing the whole field. He made a slight adjustment, opening his stance to improve his balance and serve as a timing mechanism.
“I was always taking pointers from everyone else. But I got away from thinking about what was comfortable to myself,” McCutchen said.
The third-place MVP finisher in 2012 is again hitting .320. He has reduced his strikeout rate to a three-year low and has a career-best 25 percent line-drive rate.
On Monday in Chicago, McCutchen began the putout that clinched the Pirates' first postseason berth in two decades.
With the Pirates holding a 2-1 lead and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Sweeney lined a Jason Grilli fastball into the right-center gap. McCutchen made a quick, one-bounce throw to Justin Morneau, whose relay throw beat Nate Schierholtz home for the final out.
It was McCutchen's 10th outfield assist, tying a career-high set in 2009 (he established a new mark with his 11th the next night). It was a throw he could not have made a year ago.
McCutchen acknowledged after last season that his throwing was a liability.
“It's one of the things we talked about that he wanted to take upon himself,” Hurdle said. “His (exit interviews) are usually some ideas and things he can improve upon. He goes and puts a plan in place. It was the last tool for him.”
McCutchen returned to his offseason home in Florida with a singular focus: Eliminate his lone weakness. He called upon former teammate and Florida neighbor Steve Pearce for help in early-morning workouts. McCutchen threw and threw and threw.
“Long toss. Long toss every day. That's it,” McCutchen said of his offseason throwing regimen.
Throwing allowed McCutchen to truly become a complete player.
“He's among what I like to call the ‘One Percenters' in Major League Baseball,” Walker said. “And I have a front-row seat.”
So, too, does Pittsburgh.

Read more: 
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook

Pirates beat Reds 8-3 for home-field advantage

By Joe Kay
September 28, 2013
Andrew McCutchen rounds third base after hitting his 21st homerun of the year. (Photo: Frank Victores, USA TODAY Sports)
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Hundreds of Pirates fans stood, twirled their towels and chanted ''Let's Go Bucs!'' as Jay Bruce hit a grounder for the final out, setting up a playoff game in Pittsburgh.
Baseball, this time.
Neil Walker hit two of Pittsburgh's six homers - its biggest power surge in six years - and the Pirates clinched home-field advantage for the NL's wild card playoff game by beating the Cincinnati Reds 8-3 Saturday.
Pittsburgh will host the Reds on Tuesday night in the Pirates' first playoff appearance in 21 years. Pittsburgh went 50-31 at PNC Park, the third-best home record in the NL, and wanted to make that long-awaited playoff return at home.
They got what they wanted. The postseason will start at PNC Park.
''It's going to be a really exciting time,'' Walker said. ''Something a lot of people haven't experienced with Pirate baseball. I imagine it's going to be Steeler-esque on Tuesday.''
The Reds will go with Johnny Cueto (5-2) in the one-game playoff against left-hander Francisco Liriano (16-8). Mat Latos was on schedule to start for Cincinnati, but manager Dusty Baker said he's developed a sore arm.
The Pirates won five of nine games against the Reds at PNC Park this season.
''The important thing for me is getting the guys home and playing in a park where we won 50 games and giving our fans a taste of postseason baseball,'' manager Clint Hurdle said.
Pittsburgh hit five homers off Bronson Arroyo (14-12), who had never given up that many in a game in his career. Walker homered twice off the right-hander, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez also hit solo homers, and Marlon Byrd had a two-run shot that ended Arroyo's outing in the fifth and made it 6-3.
Latos isn't the only Reds starter who's hurting. Arroyo said his back started bothering him Saturday.
''It locked up right before the game,'' Arroyo said. ''I was in the tunnel. It was like I was being stabbed in the ribs and I couldn't swivel from side to side.
''I don't think it had much to do with the game. You can't leave balls in up the zone in this ballpark against that lineup and get away with it.''
Prospect Andrew Lambo hit his first homer off Logan Ondrusek, the first time the Pirates had six in a game since Aug. 22, 2007 at Colorado.
Pirates starter Charlie Morton also struggled, leaving with one out and the bases loaded in the fifth. Vin Mazzaro (8-2) fanned Zack Cozart and retired Ryan Hanigan on a fly ball as the slumping Reds left the bases loaded for the second time in the game.
Cincinnati stranded 11 runners overall.
Both teams already had clinched wild-card berths heading into their weekend series. Whoever took it would host the one-game showdown. Pittsburgh made quick work of it, winning the opener 4-1 on Friday night and then the second game, too.
''Better to be home than on the road,'' McCutchen said. ''Today showed how bad we wanted to go home. We answered in a big way.''
The Ohio River rivals have met five times in the playoffs - 1970, 1972, 1975, 1979 and 1990, when the Reds won their last World Series title. The Reds are 13-7 against the Pirates in the postseason. Pittsburgh has played the Reds more than any other team in the playoffs.
The Reds have gone into a deep slump at a very bad time. They've lost four in a row since clinching a playoff spot with a 3-2 win over the Mets on Monday night, scoring a total of six runs.
They were at it again in the first inning on Saturday, leaving the bases loaded when Todd Frazier flied out.
Walker and McCutchen hit back-to-back homers in the third for a 2-0 lead. Brandon Phillips had an RBI single and Jay Bruce followed with a two-run double for a 3-2 lead in the third, Cincinnati's first lead since Monday.
And it didn't last long.
Alvarez led off the fourth inning with a first-pitch homer, tying it at 3. Alvarez's 36th homer gave him 100 RBIs. Walker hit his career-high 16th homer in the fifth inning - the first multihomer game of his career - and Byrd's two-run shot ended Arroyo's outing. Walker has seven homers in September.
Lambo's pinch-hit homer let the Pirates tie the record for most by a visiting team at Great American Ball Park, which opened in 2003.
Notes: Walker has homered in five of his last nine games. ... Alvarez is the first Pirates third baseman to drive in 100 runs since Aramis Ramirez drove in 110 in 2001. His 36 homers are a club record for a third baseman. ... Byrd had three hits for the second straight game. ... Philips fouled a pitch off his left shin in the fifth inning, raising a welt. He singled and left for a runner. X-rays were negative. ... Joey Votto walked three times, moving him ahead of Joe Morgan's previous club record for a season. Votto has walked 135 times.
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter:

A.J. Burnett’s strong start gives Pirates momentum says Clint Hurdle

September 27, 2013
A.J. Burnett improved to 7-6 against the Reds in his career with a dominating performance on Friday. [USA Today Sports photo]
A.J. Burnett improved to 7-6 against the Reds in his career with a dominating performance on Friday. [USA Today Sports photo]
Some managers may downplay talk of momentum in baseball, but not Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle. Hurdle watched starter A.J. Burnett hold the Reds to five hits and a single run over eight innings and give the Pirates a 4-1 victory in the three-game series with Cincinnati and said it could carry over to the rest of the series.
“It gives us some momentum, there’s no doubt about that,” Hurdle said following Friday’s win. “It gets everyone’s awareness peaked up, you watch a man go out there and not just compete, but pretty much dominate through eight innings. It sparks everybody, that’s what we were looking for from him.”
Burnett’s pitching, and Marlon Byrd’s bat helped give Pittsburgh the upper hand in the battle to host Tuesday’s Wild Card Game, which will now officially be between the Reds and Pirates as the Cardinals clinched the National League Central with a 7-0 victory over the Cubs on Friday. If the Pirates win just one of the remaining two games at Great American Ball Park, Pittsburgh will host its first postseason game since 1992 on Tuesday.
Burnett, who struck out 12 over seven innings in a win last weekend, cruised through eight innings, retiring the final 10 batters he faced before giving way to closer Jason Grilli.
The veteran pitcher’s attitude has rubbed off on his teammates, setting a tone.
“We feed off of him, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, he goes out there and competes and gives us a chance to win a ball game,” said Pedro Alvarez, who hit a two-run homer in the sixth inning to increase the Pirates’ lead to three.
The Pirates also managed to make some defensive plays behind Burnett to keep the lead, including a diving catch by Starling Marte to rob Joey Votto of a hit in the third.
“I challenged them to hustle like broke men, like men that had no money,” Hurdle said. “I don’t know if (Marte) knew what it meant.”
But Marte showed that kind of desire — as did Burnett.
After Hurdle told Burnett he was coming out after he got Ryan Ludwick to fly out to left to end the eighth, the veteran right-hander got in his manager’s face. But five minutes later, he was hugging Hurdle.
“I’m coming off after a good eighth, in my mind I’m going back out. I don’t know what the score is, I don’t know what my pitch count is, I just know I want to go back out,” Burnett said. “You’re in the zone, you’re that focused and that locked in, so I know the gig — that’s why we have closers on these ball clubs. The moment of coming off and being locked in. It took me a little bit to get over it, but I got over it.”
Hurdle said handing the ball over to Grilli, who only returned to the closer’s role last week, had another purpose.
“I felt (Burnett) had given us everything we could ask for. He believed he had a little bit more,” Hurdle said. “I also wanted to reestablish the confidence in our closer, which I think is imperative going down the stretch and into the playoffs. He’s got a three-run lead based on the fact that A.J. was so efficient, so you give him a chance to go ahead and put his foot down and build some positive momentum as well.”
If there’s such a thing, the Pirates certainly have it going into Saturday’s game.