Sunday, June 30, 2013

Pirates first to 50, but they're no fluke

By Christina Kahrl |

June 30, 2013

First team to 50 wins, the Pittsburgh Pirates? For reals? Legit? By getting there behind Francisco Liriano’s start, a deep pen’s collective hold and save, and the homers hit by Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, today’s Pirates might have done something no Pirates team has done since the franchise's 1960 championship squad.

Holy moly, we might be witnessing the end of professional sports’ longest, dimmest dark age, not least in terms of Steel City baseball history. Praise be that it might be done for; never have so many suffered for so long to so little reward. A generation of children born in Pittsburgh since the Pirates’ last winning season and postseason appearance have already been eligible to vote since the Buccos’ major-sports record of 20 consecutive losing seasons -- the past six with the Nutting family running the show -- got started. Give it much longer, and they’d have been graduating from college en masse. Say what you will about Cubs fans, but they’ve never had to endure something like this.

It might all seem improbable enough. But by notching his seventh win in Saturday's 2-1 victory over visiting Milwaukee, Liriano is making it clear that his initial strong start is not the flashy return from yet another injury, followed by a predictable fade. He’s notched five quality starts in his past six turns. His walk rate isn’t just down by 1.5 free passes per nine, it’s down below 3.5 BB/9, at which it was when he was helping pitch the Minnesota Twins into one-game playoffs and contention. As easy as it might be to write off Liriano as flaky, this is the guy who was once the sixth-best prospect in baseball (per Baseball America before 2006), and after a year lost to Tommy John surgery on his elbow plus five different 15-day disabled-list stints for shoulder woes and arm soreness, there comes a point at which you have to stop calling the guy flaky and recognize the talent he’s capable of showing when he’s healthy, as infrequent as that might be.

But there’s the rub: That fragility is part of what made him a Pirate, but that talent is part of why the Buccos were smart to get him. The fascinating thing about the Pirates making the leap from sub-mediocrity to best record in baseball isn’t that it’s a surprise. It’s that they have the talent to make it so.

These Pirates aren’t some ragamuffin band of misfit toys -- they are not the Oakland A’s of "Moneyball" legend or present-day fact. This is a team built around past top prospects, whether they belonged to the Pirates or others. Guys like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker and Alvarez and Gerrit Cole are men that they picked and any team might envy; faded former studs like A.J. Burnett and Liriano and even a well-traveled veteran like closer Jason Grilli -- if you go back to the ’90s and his pedigree as a Giants farmhand 15 years ago -- are past top prospects who they have picked up, recognizing who they’ve been and what they might still be capable of.

[+] EnlargeJason Grilli
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJason Grilli celebrates after getting his 27th save, a six-pitch outing to close out the Brewers.
Never mind that they’re rattling off wins while either three- or four-fifths of their rotation is on the DL. (That depends on how you feel about Jeff Karstens’ place on the depth chart.) With Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez due back from the DL within a week’s time, that just means Pittsburgh has the kind of depth in its rotation to sustain big weeks, big months and big seasons, no matter how well or badly its lineup is doing. Add their in-season fixes like switching from the oh-so-glovely Clint Barmes to better everyday option Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and it’s clear the Pirates are willing to fix things on the fly to aim for targets that might once have seemed sky-high.

But that’s the thing. As much as things are going right by reaching 50 wins first, for all that, these really aren’t your daddy’s Pirates. And why is that? How is it that the franchise of Dave Parker, or Roberto Clemente, or Paul Waner, as proud a legacy of right-field greatness as any team this side of Babe Ruth’s employers, could be producing a collective .656 OPS before Saturday’s action?

That’s the lowest RF mark in the National League, the worst among NL corner outfielders (even the Juan Pierre-hobbled Marlins), and worse production than 10 teams in the NL are getting from their center fielders. This is even more epically awful when you consider that right field is supposed to be one of your best run-producing slots, with production that bounces around the standard set by first basemen. It is a huge part of the reason the Pirates rank just 10th in the NL in runs scored per game, and it’s the most obvious fix that, once addressed, would provide a platform for them to really romp in the second half, something that goes beyond just hoping that the rotation's depth and McCutchen's inevitable monster month carry them.

The Pirates’ right-field issue is the biggest problem slot in any outfield in the National League, whether you’re just talking contenders or not -- and the Pirates, despite their recent history for second-half fades, have earned the right to be called contenders. So this isn’t just something on general manager Neal Huntington’s eventual to-do list -- it’s important, and it’s important right now. This is not a problem you solve by getting Jose Tabata back from the DL next week; it certainly isn’t something you settle for patching up by grabbing Jeff Francoeur off waivers and hoping he forgets he’s Jeff Francoeur for a few months. This requires a bold stroke in the same way that breaking from two decades of below-.500 baseball demands something more than an 82-win season.

If you think this is a coming-of-age trade deadline coming up for the Pirates, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Huntington has actually been fairly aggressive at the deadline in recent seasons -- striking deals for Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider last season and Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in 2011.

So as far as that goes, the Pirates have proven more than willing to play in the inexpensive end of the deadline market when it comes to the self-improvement sweepstakes. But what would it mean if the people signing the checks would pony up the cash to add a premium bat for right field? Everything. Or Nutting.

The Pirates will be defined not by their ambitions, but by their actions. As brilliant as those have been on the field, here’s hoping that they’re matched by off-field machinations in the month to come. The good folks in Pittsburgh deserve nothing less.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for You can follow her on Twitter.

Searage glue behind golden arms

Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with pitching coach Ray Searage during spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
About Dejan Kovacevic
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Sports Columnist Dejan Kovacevic can be reached via e-mail

By Dejan Kovacevic 
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013, 10:39 p.m. 

If you haven't pitched, they say, you don't know pitching.
I don't know pitching.
Never have and never will, no matter how many games are watched, no matter how many questions asked, no matter how many incisive answers offered.
But I do know this: Ray Searage is my choice as the Pirates' first-half MVP.
It's not just that this incessantly incredible 50-30 start has been built on Searage's pitching staff that ranks No. 2 in Major League Baseball with a 3.18 ERA, No. 1 (by a mile) with 12 shutouts, No. 1 (by another mile) with a .226 opponents' batting average, No. 10 with 629 strikeouts, No. 4 with 270 walks allowed.
It's not just that Searage has overcome having 10 pitchers spend 400 days — exactly, no kidding — on the disabled list.
It's not just how Searage has stabilized veterans who struggled before coming here, notably top-dollar guys A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano.
All of that's what a really good pitching coach does.
Want to know what a great pitching coach does?
Ask Jeanmar Gomez.
He arrived over the winter in the most minor of minor trades with the Indians. Should have been a ghost in spring training, a complete afterthought.
But one day in Bradenton, I asked Searage to list all his starting candidates. He named a few, paused, then caught himself and added Gomez.
Was he serious?
Searage: “You'll see.”
Nobody saw much in March. Gomez was mostly a mess. But something changed near the end of Grapefruit ball.
“Ray told me to stop moving my head so much,” Gomez recalled. “It made me do too many things with my body, like I was doing in Cleveland.”
That was it?
“That was it.”
Gomez still doesn't last much beyond 70 pitches, but no one cares. He has a 2.76 ERA in his eight starts and has been essential in helping the rotation navigate all those injuries.
Ask Jason Grilli.
He'd be my unquestioned MVP if limiting the scope to players.
“I knew Ray way back when I was with the Marlins,” Grilli said of his first organization. “My career's come full circle to have a good guy ... who's the same guy I knew back then. It's a pleasure to work with him.”
Grilli, of course, is suddenly the game's best closer under Searage after 15 years adrift.
Ask Mark Melancon.
He pitched so poorly for Boston in early 2012 that the Red Sox sent this former big league closer down to Pawtucket to get right. He then came to the Pirates with the extra weight of being the main piece in the Joel Hanrahan trade.
“More than anything, I needed someone to have confidence in me, who could understand what I was about and what I could do,” Melancon said. “That's what I got from Ray. He understood my delivery from the first day. He brought out the best in me.”
Melancon has been equally fantastic.
Ask Tony Watson.
He laughed when the topic was raised.
“That's because Ray will have that effect on you,” Watson said. “He's always making sure you're having fun. Even when things aren't going well.”
One lousy outing early this season brought Searage to the mound for one of those odd-looking conferences where everyone covers their mouths.
“Ray looks me dead in the eye and says, ‘I don't have anything to say to you. I'm just waiting for other guy out there to get warm,' ” Watson remembered. “Couldn't help it, I busted out. Good thing I had that glove up.”
Watson has been so good Clint Hurdle now sees him as closer material.
Ask Jared Hughes.
“You know, I could tell you about things he's done for my delivery or ways he's helped form me as a pitcher and a person,” Hughes said. “But the best thing I can say is that I remember what it was like in the low minors, the way everyone would talk about him: ‘Oh, just wait till you get to Searage. Man, that guy will take care of everything.' And then when I did get to Ray, he was even better than advertised.”
Ask Charlie Morton, whose entire career — and personal confidence, for that matter — has been painstakingly shaped by Searage.
“He's a good man,” Morton said. “He cares.”
All this would make the man blush in shades even the occasionally purple-faced Hurdle couldn't match.
“I am humbled by these guys. I am honored. I'm the luckiest man in baseball to come to work every day with these guys,” Searage was saying before the game Saturday against the Brewers. “But they deserve the credit. Not me. They're the ones on the bump. I'm just standing behind them.”
Uh-uh. Sorry, Ray.
Yes, Neal Huntington and his pro scouts deserve credit. Russell Martin does, too, for superlative game-calling and receiving. But when every guy on the staff shy of, what, Jonathan Sanchez and Mike Zagurski, gets the job done, the bulk of that credit goes to the common denominator.
Got my own Searage tale.
Late on the eve of the 2010 season finale in Miami, near the end of that 105-loss disaster, I'd reported that the Pirates were about to fire John Russell as manager. Searage had come up from the minors at midseason and showed immediate results, but his job couldn't have looked any more certain than anyone else's. Players, as they're wont to do, sought more information. A couple called. Others texted.
All had basically the same message: What about Ray? ... No way Ray will go. ... They can't get rid of Ray.
They didn't of course, and you don't have to know much about pitching to see why.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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Alvarez, Liriano help Pirates to 8th straight win

The Associated Press
June 30, 2013

Alvarez, Liriano help Pirates to 8th straight win
Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jason Grilli (27 saves, 1.77 ERA) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (.247, 20 HR, 53 RBI) celebrate after the Pirates defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 in a baseball game Saturday, June 29, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have won eight games in a row, and fans are starting to notice.
After all, the Pirates own the best record in all of baseball.
Pittsburgh beat the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 on Saturday night in front of its fifth straight sellout crowd at home. The Pirates have never had that many consecutive capacity crowds since moving into their new ballpark in 2001.
Long the third-most popular team in a three-team town behind the NFL's Steelers and NHL's Penguins, the Pirates are suddenly becoming a hot ticket.
''The energy of the crowds has been unbelievable and we've been soaking it all up,'' said Pirates closer Jason Grilli, who earned the save. ''You absorb it and try to use it to your advantage. We're playing for ourselves but we're also playing for about 40,000 people in the stands and an entire city.
''People are dusting off their Pirates shirts and coming out in droves, and we're trying to give them what they want to see.''
Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones homered, and Francisco Lirianopitched six strong innings to lead the surging Pirates.
Alvarez hit his 20th home run with one out in the second inning to extend his hitting streak to 12 games and help the Pirates to their longest winning streak since 2004. Pittsburgh, which has endured 20 consecutive losing seasons, is a major league-best 50-30.
Jones hit a drive to the shrubbery in straightaway center field, his seventh homer, to lead off the fourth inning and increase the Pirates' lead to 2-0.
That was enough for Liriano (7-3), who improved to 4-1 in five home starts this season.
''We're having fun, we're playing hard and we're giving everything we have,'' Liriano said.
Liriano gave up one run and seven hits in six innings with one walk and six strikeouts. Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Grilli each pitched one scoreless inning of relief. Grilli recorded his 27th save in 28 opportunities.
''Frankie, for as efficient as he was in giving up one run, there were only about six or seven sequences where he threw back-to-back strikes,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. ''But when he needed to make a pitch, he made a pitch.''
Grilli was pitching for the first time in six days after having his worst outing of the season. He gave up three runs against the Los Angeles Angels in a non-save situation last Sunday before the Pirates held on for a 10-9 win.
''He's our guy,'' Hurdle said. ''He was well-rested and I wasn't the least bit nervous about going to him.''
Donovan Hand (0-1) allowed both home runs but turned in a solid five-inning performance in his second major league start.
Hand was pleased with his outing, except for the home run to Alvarez that cleared the right-field stands, hit a tree and bounced into the Allegheny River.
''I tried to go up and in and left a fat pitch over the middle in his hot zone, and he crushed it,'' said Hand, who pitched 4 2-3 scoreless innings in his first start June 28 against Atlanta. ''I was aggressive, which is exactly what I wanted to do, just building off of the last start because they swing it a lot.''
Hand has made a good impression on Brewers manager Ron Roenicke.
''I thought Donny threw the ball really well,'' Roenicke said. ''He understands how to pitch. He understands how to throw strikes.''
Carlos Gomez had two hits for the Brewers, who lost their fifth straight game. He singled with one out in the sixth inning and scored Milwaukee's run on Yuniesky Betancourt's single with two outs.
Brewers shortstop Jean Segura extended his hitting streak to 11 games, but second baseman Rickie Weeks' run ended at a career-best 13 games.
Pittsburgh has won four straight games against Milwaukee and eight of 10 after losing nine in a row.
''We're playing good baseball,'' Hurdle said. ''It's nice to get to 50 wins but we're just trying to meet the demands of the game, honestly self-evaluate and get better every day. There is still a long way to go.''
NOTES: Milwaukee LF Ryan Braun (bruised left thumb) is scheduled to a swing a bat Tuesday for the first time since going on the disabled list, retroactive to June 10. ... Pittsburgh LHP Wandy Rodriguez (strained left forearm) won't make a scheduled rehab start Monday for Triple-A Indianapolis after experiencing discomfort in his forearm Friday during a bullpen session. ... Pirates RHP A.J. Burnett (strained right calf) is scheduled to pitch a simulated game Tuesday. That could be the last step before he is activated from the disabled list. ... Brewers RF Norichika Aoki didn't start for the first time since May 30 as Roenicke decided to rest him. Aoki pinch-hit in the ninth inning and flied out. ... The three-game series concludes Sunday with Milwaukee RHP Kyle Lohse (3-6, 3.69) facing Pittsburgh RHP Charlie Morton (1-1, 2.81).

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Pittsburgh Pirates: From A to Z

By DJ Gallo |

June 27, 2013

Pirates celebrateOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Pirates began Thursday at 48-30, tied with St. Louis for baseball's best record.

The Pirates -- the Pittsburgh Pirates -- have the best record in baseball. In late June.

Want to jump aboard the bandwagon? Here's everything you need to know about baseball's best team (as of this writing).

A -- Andrew McCutchen: Pittsburgh's center fielder is the face of the franchise. He even made the cover of "MLB 13 The Show" this year thanks to fan voting. And it was legitimate voting, not like when the mean kids in high school vote an unpopular girl prom queen as a prank. Almost all of McCutchen's offensive numbers so far are well off the pace of his 2012 career highs, yet the Pirates are still winning, and winning a lot. This is the most balanced Pirates team in decades -- excluding the many Pirates teams that achieved perfect roster garbage equilibrium, of course.

B -- Base-stealing: The Pirates have caught 28 percent of attempted base-stealers this year, good for 13th in baseball. What's so great about that? It's a massive improvement over last year, when they were dead last at 11 percent and caught just 19 baserunners attempting to steal -- the lowest total in baseball in 50 years. The reason for the improvement is twofold. New catcher Russell Martin has a better arm than Rod Barajas, and the organization has decided that ignoring baserunners and focusing solely on the hitter, thereby letting every even mildly ambulatory opposing player who reached first to jog to second, was probably not the best approach. Good thinking!

C -- Cole: The Pirates drafted Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He made his major league debut two weeks ago and struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches. He later broke a scoreless tie with a two-run single. With three starts under his belt, Cole is 3-0 with a 3.44 ERA. On Tuesday against the Angels, he became the first starter not named Justin Verlander to hit 101 on the gun since 2008. He probably should call Kate Upton.

D -- Division: The National League Central has long been considered one of baseball's weakest divisions, even though it has produced two of the past seven World Series champions and four of the past nine NL champs. But this season, the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds mean the Central has three of the four best records in baseball. Just imagine if they still got to feast off the Astros 15 times a year.

E -- Errors: The Pirates have the seventh-most errors in baseball this season, so that's a definite area for improvement. Errors go both ways, however, as the Pirates know well.

F -- Francisco Liriano: The Pirates agreed to a two-year, $12.75 million contract with Liriano in December, but that contract was renegotiated -- under more favorable terms for the Pirates -- after Liriano broke his arm playing with his kids. Liriano is now 6-3 with a 2.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 10.0 K/9. A year ago the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett, who promptly broke his face bunting in spring training and then had a very good season. The lesson is this: If the Pirates sign a veteran pitcher everyone has given up on and then he sustains a comical injury, watch out.

G -- Grilli: The fourth overall pick by the Giants in the 1997 draft, 36-year-old Jason Grilliwas given the closer's job this season after Pittsburgh traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. Grilli leads the National League in saves and has an absurd 15.1 K/9. Hanrahan underwent Tommy John surgery in May. It's a strange world when good fortune shines on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

H -- Hurdle: Manager Clint Hurdle has managed to keep the Pirates positive in the wake oflast season's historic collapse. Even better, he no longer has the Pirates bunting every time a guy gets on first base.

I -- Inge: Do the Pirates have the best record in baseball because they are pitching well and getting timely hitting? Or is it because of the INGETANGIBLES provided by Brandon Inge? Inge has a .207/.232/.272 slash line, which only further highlights his intangibles.

J -- Jordy Mercer: One of Pittsburgh's biggest weaknesses was thought to be that Clint Barmes provides zero offense from the shortstop position. Barmes has continued to provide zero offense, but now he does it from the bench. Since the 26-year-old Mercer took over at shortstop full time two weeks ago, he has hit .326. While Barmes has a higher OBP than Inge, his name unfortunately doesn't work well with intangibles-related word play.

K -- Kansas City Royals: If the Pirates finally end their streak of losing seasons -- they need to play just .404 baseball from here on out to do so -- the Royals will take over as the baseball team with the most consecutive losing seasons. In football, the Raiders have the longest streak of .500 or worse seasons, because the Raiders.

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesLefty Jeff Locke could go from maybe-fifth-starter material to the All-Star team.
L -- Locke: Twenty-five year-old Jeff Locke entered spring training as one of the options for the fifth spot in Pittsburgh's rotation. He's now 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP and kind of has to be put on the All-Star team. He seems to be holding the team's depth chart upside-down.

M -- "Million Dollar Arm": "Million Dollar Arm," a Disney film starring Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein, the agent who signed Indian pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, is set to be released in 2014. The movie could have an even happier Disney ending if the team that signed Singh and Patel turns out to not be the laughingstock of baseball.

N -- Nineteen Ninety-Two: It's the year burned into the psyche of every Pirates fan. 1992: The last year the Pirates made the playoffs. 1992: The last year the Pirates had a winning season. 1992: When the sadness began. How long ago is 1992? Jaromir Jagr played in the Stanley Cup finals then. OK, maybe not the best example. But it's a long time ago.

O -- Organizational strength: Not only do the Pirates have the best record in major league baseball, but their Triple-A team has the best record in its league. Baseball America rated their farm system seventh-best at the start of the season, which was before the Pirates brought in two more first-round talents in the June draft. They also have McCutchen signed through 2018. It's going to be really hard to screw this up.

P -- Pedro Alvarez: The former No. 2 overall pick may never hit for average or even get on base much, but when he does connect, the ball often lands in a faraway land. If you want to compare Alvarez to a great Pedro from baseball history, go with Cerrano.

Q -- Quacks: The Pirates made news in the offseason when their bizarre practice of putting prospects through a "hell week" of Navy SEALs-style training was revealed. Of course, if the Pirates end the season with the best record in baseball, expect every organization to start doing this. It's a copycat league. Disagree with me and you owe me 75 pushups.

R – Rotation: In Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Cole, Charlie Morton, Locke, Liriano andJeanmar Gomez, the Pirates have seven solid starters at their disposal, with James McDonald and Jeff Karstens set to come off the disabled list later this season for a total of nine. When Pirates general manager Neal Huntington took the job, Pittsburgh's rotation featured Paul MaholmZach DukeIan SnellMatt MorrisTom Gorzelanny and John Van Benschoten. An improvement, wouldn't you agree?

S -- Starling Marte: In his first full season in the majors, 24-year-old leadoff hitter Starling Marte is making headlines with a .340 OBP, 22 steals and eight home runs. His name also has "Star" in it and Marte loosely rhymes with "party," so he is a pun-loving headline writer's dream.

T -- Trades: Last season, the Pirates made the biggest trade deadline acquisition in their history by getting Rodriguez from the Astros. It was a fine deal for Pittsburgh, but Rodriguez isn't the kind of player who shifts the balance of power in baseball. Making a play for Giancarlo Stanton, however, as's David Schoenfield suggested? Yeah, that would do it. The Pirates have plenty of prospects and pitching to make a major deal happen. The one downside: If the Pittsburgh Pirates become heavy World Series favorites, the world probably ends. So there's that.

U -- Underwater: On June 1, Garrett Jones became the first Pirates player -- and second player in PNC Park history -- to hit a home run into the Allegheny River on the fly. Pirates ownership didn't even demand that he reimburse them for the lost ball, which is definitely a positive sign.

V -- Voting: No Pirates are currently on pace to start in the All-Star Game. Is there a better indicator that the team is relevant than getting ignored by All-Star voters? Also, is Cal Ripken still getting All-Star votes? I'm too afraid to look.

W -- Walker: Neil Walker is Pittsburgh’s second baseman. He is also from Pittsburgh. His nickname is the Pittsburgh Kid. Disparage him in any way at your own risk.

X -- eXplode: Burnett's rosin bag exploded in Pittsburgh's season opener.

Normally that would be a bad omen for the Pirates. But they played the Cubs that day, so the Cubs probably sucked up all the negativity in the environment like the sponge of failure that they are.

Y -- Yankees: When Russell Martin signed with the Pirates in the offseason because the Yankees didn't make a comparable offer, he was clearly disappointed to leave the pinstripes. Now the Pirates look clearly superior to the Yankees. There is no one of sound mind who can't enjoy that.

Z -- Zoltan: The Pirates make the "Zoltan" sign -- it's a reference to "Dude, Where's My Car?" ... don't ask -- when they get a big hit. Zoltan also served as the Z in an article very much like this around this very time last season, in which someone wrote that the 2012 Pirates probably wouldn't collapse like the 2011 Pirates because "there are big differences between the 2012 Pirates and 2011 Pirates." Ooof. So, yeah. We’ll see what happens. All aboard the bandwagon! For now. Know that the exits are clearly marked.

DJ Gallo founded and has been a staff writer for ESPN's Page 2 and Playbook

Le'Veon Bell is key to Steelers' success

By Jamison Hensley |
June 27, 2013

Le'Veon BellCharles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsLe'Veon Bell is being counted on to help re-establish the Pittsburgh Steelers' running game.
Running back Le'Veon Bell wasn't the Pittsburgh Steelers' first pick of the 2013 draft. That was outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who was taken No. 17 overall.

And Bell wasn't the first running back selected in the draft. The Cincinnati Bengals choseGiovani Bernard 11 spots ahead of Bell in the second round.

But when it comes to importance and immediate impact, no one ranks ahead of Bell. The big, elusive Michigan State runner is the leading candidate to get the Steelers' once proud rushing attack back on track. He's their best hope to bring back big plays to the ground game. He's also the key to turning the Steelers into a playoff team again.

Pittsburgh needs Bell to be more than a starter. It needs him to be a finisher. An offensive coordinator once told me that throwing the ball scores points, but running it wins games. Teams need to be able to grind out yards and the clock to close out games, something the Steelers were unable to do last season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Pittsburgh ranked 25th in the NFL in fourth-quarter rushing yards. How important is that? The nine teams that struggled the most running the ball in the fourth quarter all missed the playoffs. Four of the top five teams in fourth-quarter rushing last season made the playoffs.

Some would argue that losing teams were forced to throw the ball in the fourth quarter because they were trailing. The Steelers, though, held a fourth-quarter lead in 11 of their 16 games in 2012. You can make the case that a limping running game had as much to do with the Steelers' disappointing 8-8 record last season as a banged-up Ben Roethlisberger.

This is why Bell looks like a great fit for Pittsburgh. He was college football's ultimate workhorse last season. No one had more than Bell's 382 carries, and only one other back had more than 356 carries. The watershed moment of his career came against Boise State last year, when he touched the ball 50 times for 265 total yards in a 17-13 comeback victory.

Bell wants to run the ball on first down. He wants to catch it on third down. He wants the ball as much in the final quarter as the first.

"In the fourth quarter, that’s grind time," Bell said at the team's mandatory minicamp earlier this month. "That’s when you have to bring it home. That’s when you know your team is going to look to you to make plays, and that’s something you look forward to. You have to take pride in that and get the job done."

Bell hasn't been named the starting running back, but it would be a surprise to see anyone else lining up behind Roethlisberger when the Steelers kick off their season against theTennessee Titans, even though recent history is against Bell. The last rookie to lead the Steelers in rushing was Tim Worley in 1989, three years before Bell was born.

The Steelers can call it a competition at running back, but Pittsburgh will have trouble running the ball if Bell doesn't step up immediately. The Steelers are coming off their second-worst rushing season (1,537 yards) since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. General manager Kevin Colbert didn't hide his dissatisfaction, saying at the NFL combine in February, "Where we were in the running game last year was indicative of the talent at the position.”

Rashard Mendenhall wasn't re-signed. Jonathan Dwyer was reportedly shopped around after Bell was drafted. And Isaac Redman has proved to be nothing more than a backup.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell's versatility was appealing to the Steelers.
"You got to go out there and compete," Bell said. "I’m not saying I’m going to be a starter. I’m not saying anything. I’m just going to do the best that I can."

Some may wonder why the Steelers waited until the second round to draft Bell when he's so valuable to this season and the future. Part of it goes back to the devaluation of running backs in general because they have shorter careers. Teams also had questions about this running back class in particular.

There are durability concerns about Bernard and Eddie Lacy. There are doubts about Montee Ball's top-end speed. Bell has to prove he can run between the tackles, show he can pass protect and change his upright running style, which makes him -- at 6-foot-1 -- too big of a target.

What separates Bell from those other backs taken in the second round is his supporting cast. Bernard, Ball and Lacy all had linemen blocking for them who were drafted in the first round this year. Bell didn't have the luxury of open holes, which is why he led the nation with 921 yards after contact last season.

“It was pretty clear that this was the guy that we would be most excited about being available when it came to our pick,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said after the Steelers drafted Bell.

There's a common misconception about Bell because of his size. Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis welcomed Bell on Twitter by writing: "The steel city loves big backs!!" Bell is 244 pounds, but he doesn't consider himself a bruising back. He has more finesse in his game. He likes to get outside and has been known to hurdle tacklers in the open field.

Bell isn't trying to be the next Bettis, but he is quite familiar with the success of the Steelers' running game in the past and wants it to reach that level once again.

"Growing up, my family was hard-core Pittsburgh Steelers fans. I know the Steelers love revolving their offense around the running game," said Bell, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio. "The fact that they picked me made me very happy. I’m glad where I’m at, and I want to go out there and make plays for them.

Pirates' Cole wins 4th straight to start career

The Associated Press

June 29, 2013

Andrew McCutchen (.293, 9 HR, 41 RBI) shakes hands with first base coach Rick Sofield after hitting a homerun in last night's 10-3 win over the Brewers.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Look who has the best record in the major leagues.
Gerrit Cole overcame a rocky start to become the first Pirates pitcher to win his first four career starts in more than a century and the Pirates won their seventh straight, 10-3 over the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Pirates moved a game up in the NL Central when the St. Louis Cardinals lost later at Oakland. At 49-30, Pittsburgh has the best record in baseball.
Cole (4-0) gave up three runs in the first inning but no more as he made it through six innings, allowing eight hits with three walks and three strikeouts. Nick Maddox started 4-0 in his first four starts in 1907.
''It's really a team effort,'' Cole said. ''I've pitched pretty well but I've gotten a lot of support defensively and our offense has been very opportunistic. It feels good to say I'm 4-0 but it feels even better because the team is playing well.''
The Pirates are on their longest winning streak since running off 10 in a row in 2004.
The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992 and the 20-year stretch of futility is the longest in major North American professional team sports history. However, they are not getting caught up in being in the rarified air of being 19 games over .500 in June.
''We're just focused on winning that day,'' Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. ''Our guys our very focused on taking it pitch to pitch.''
Johnny Hellweg (0-1) failed to get out of the second inning in his major league debut, giving up seven runs - five earned - in 1 2-3 innings.
''He didn't come out with very good stuff,'' Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. ''He was trying to aim the ball instead of throw it. That happens a lot of times when it's a guy's first time out.''
Starling Marte had a double and triple among his three hits, and just missed a homer in the eighth when he flied out to deep center field.
McCutchen had three hits, including his ninth home run, and three RBIs for Pittsburgh. Pedro Alvarez added two hits and Neil Walkerhit a two-run double to start a seven-run second inning in which the Pirates sent 12 batters to the plate.
Alvarez extended his hitting streak to 11 games
Ryan Reid pitched three scoreless innings for his first career save. He was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis on June 3 after spending seven seasons in the minor leagues.
''It's really nice to get a save but it's even better to help the team win,'' said Reid, who has a 1.00 ERA in six games. ''I feel good about being able to come up here and help the team keep winning.''
Carlos Gomez, who missed the previous three games with a sprained right shoulder, had two hits for the Brewers. Jean Seguraand Juan Francisco also had two hits apiece. Rickie Weeks ran his hitting streak to 13 games.
Walker's double got the Pirates to 3-2, scoring Garrett Jones and Alvarez, who led off with singles.
The Pirates then loaded the bases as Hellweg walked Travis Snider and Cole around a groundout by Jordy Mercer. Marte then singled home Walker with the tying run.
The Pirates went ahead when Russell Martin followed by hitting a grounder up the middle that Segura, the shortstop, misplayed for an error, allowing Snider and Cole to score. McCutchen and Alvarez followed with RBI singles to knock the 6-foot-9 Hellweg from the game.
''We had some trouble with (Hellweg) in the first inning,'' McCutchen said. ''He's so big and he was throwing sinkers from a downhill angle at a time when there still were shadows on the field. Then we got adjusted to him.''
Milwaukee acquired Hellweg and Segura, who leads the National League with 104 hits, last July from the Los Angeles Angles in a trade for ace pitcher Zack Greinke. Hellweg was 7-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 14 starts with Triple-A Nashville this season.
''I wanted to have a good pace, I thought that was important in my first game, but I really started rushing things, especially in that second inning,'' Hellweg said.
The Brewers jumped on Cole for three quick runs.
A walk to Norichika Aoki and singles by Segura and Gomez loaded the bases and Aramis Ramirez walked to force in a run. A second run scored when Jonathan Lucroy grounded into a double play and Francisco capped the inning with an RBI single.
However, the 3-0 lead held up only for one inning, and the Pirates added on runs following their seven-run second. Marte hit an RBI double in the third and tripled in the sixth and scored on McCutchen's double. McCutchen homered off Michael Gonzalez in the eighth.
''I was on the ropes and the pitch count was getting up there in that first inning but I got some groundballs in the second, guys made some really good plays behind and that settled me down,'' Cole said.
NOTES: Brewers 1B Corey Hart will miss the season. He is scheduled to have surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left knee July 26. Hart has been on the disabled list all season after having right knee surgery in January. ... Snider left the game after six innings with a bruised right foot. ... Milwaukee activated RHP Hiram Burgos from the 15-day disabled list and optioned him to Triple-A Nashville. ... The Pirates recalled INF/OF Josh Harrison from Triple-A Indianapolis and optioned C Tony Sanchez to the same club. ... Milwaukee RHP Donovan Hand (0-0, 2.37) faces Pittsburgh LHP Francisco Liriano (6-3, 2.30) on Saturday night.