Monday, March 31, 2014

Don't let Bonds ruin MVP's moment

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen will be presented his 2013 National League MVP award Monday before the 2014 opener against the Chicago Cubs.

It is opening day, to many the best day of the sports year, the perfect day to celebrate the start of spring after a long, brutal winter. It has added significance here because of the Pirates' remarkable success in 2013 after 20 years of embarrassing baseball. It is a day to say thank you to a team that, in manager Clint Hurdle's words, reconnected a proud, sports-loving city with its ball club. It is especially a day to honor Andrew McCutchen, the best of the best, the National League's Most Valuable Player.
So why is Barry Bonds a part of the pregame ceremony?
The Pirates picked a lousy time to bring back Bonds. Nothing should detract from this awesome day, but Bonds' presence surely will. There will be boos. Bonds is the most detested athlete in Pittsburgh sports history. No one is a close second. Not Kordell Stewart, who lived under the normal, absurd scrutiny associated with being Steelers quarterback but also had to deal with more haters because he is black. Not even Jaromir Jagr, who was a petulant child almost into his 30s when he played for the Penguins, begged to be traded and jilted the team one final time to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2011.
Hardly anyone will argue that Bonds might have been the greatest player in Pirates history. He was the best player of my lifetime, which includes Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski. It's true, he failed badly in the postseason, hitting a combined .191 with one home run and three RBIs in 20 games in the Pirates' three playoff appearances from 1990-92. But he's best-remembered -- worst-remembered? -- for his throw to the plate from left field that was too late to get Atlanta's Sid Bream in Game 7 of the 1992 playoffs. He gets a bum rap there. That wasn't a bad throw. He had to go into left-center field to get the ball, then throw across his body. His mistake was brushing off center fielder Andy Van Slyke's repeated suggestion a few pitches earlier that he move a couple of steps into left-center.

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MVP Award Hasn't Changed Andrew McCutchen's Focus

March 31, 2014
BRADENTON | The demands on Andrew McCutchen's time were constant this spring, as might be expected after the Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder from Fort Meade won the National League's Most Valuable Player award.
As the Pirates' most celebrated player in decades, McCutchen was the center of attention all winter and spring. It was easy to get distracted.
"But I kept the main thing the main thing, and that's to get ready for baseball," he said.
When a recent exhibition game was rained out, it was McCutchen who was asked to make the trip worthwhile for the Robinson Five, a gospel singing group from Lake Wales that went over to sing the national anthem. With the game called off, the young singers asked to meet McCutchen, for whom they put on a concert near the Pirates' clubhouse. Still in his uniform, McCutchen handled the situation with warmth and dignity.
"He's always been a confident man, and I think with the success that he's continued to have, there could be more confidence growing," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "There's more leadership growing. He's 27 years old. I do believe he feels there's more in front of him, more there for him."
McCutchen, who lives in Lakeland, hit .417 with five home runs this spring. Today in Pittsburgh, he will be presented with the MVP award by Barry Bonds, the last Pirate to win the award in 1992.
"It doesn't take the MVP to give you confidence," McCutchen said. "I always said the happiest things don't come as a surprise; you have to have the expectation for yourself.
"I don't necessarily say I expect to get an MVP because that's not what I shoot for. I just shoot to help my team out in any way, shape or form that I possibly can. I know I have the ability to do well and play well, and that's basically it."
When a player reaches McCutchen's stature and/or wins a major award, it's not unusual for his picture to be on the cover of the team's media guide the following year. This year McCutchen is on the cover and the back.
None of that is going to faze him, Pirates catcher Russell Martin said.
"No matter the situation, he's just level-headed, always under control, but yet he's so dynamic and explosive," Martin said. "It's a weird combination of somebody who can be in control and so dynamic and explosive."
With that formula under control, Hurdle wouldn't be surprised to see McCutchen have a better season than last season, when he batted .317 with 21 home runs and led the Pirates to their first winning season in 21 years.
"Right now he's in a very good place. He's in a confident place, a very competitive place," Hurdle said. "I think the challenge for players is to have a backyard mentality in a major league environment, and that doesn't happen at the same time for every player. For some players it never happens.
"It looks to me like he's been getting to that place more often that not, where it's just ‘I'm playing a game.' The great ones really have that mentality where it doesn't matter that it's in front of 50,000, it doesn't matter that it's the bottom of the ninth. None of that matters. He has a lot of emotion, and I think he channels it properly."
Considering the level of stardom he has achieved, channeling that emotion and attention may be McCutchen's biggest challenge at this stage of his career.
"Last year was great, but that's over with. We're focused on what we have in front of us," he said. "I keep the main thing the main thing. When the season starts, I'll be ready to go. I'm just taking it day by day right now. I've tended to do that, and it's working for me so that's what I'm going to keep doing."

Crosby helps Penguins beat Blackhawks 4-1

By Dan Scifo
March 29, 2014

 Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins moves the puck in front of Teuvo Teravainen #86 of the Chicago Blackhawks on March 30, 2014 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The reeling Chicago Blackhawks took another hard hit. The Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be coming together at just the right time.

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Sidney Crosby scored two goals in the final five minutes, helping the Penguins to a 4-1 victory over the injury-riddled Blackhawks on Sunday night.
''I thought this was one of our most physical games of the year,'' Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. ''We saw it from the beginning of the game until the end.''
The biggest hit came in the second period.
Already playing without Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks lost captain Jonathan Toews to an upper-body injury when he was drilled by Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. Toews was holding his left arm on the bench before heading down the runway for good in the second.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville didn't believe the injury to Toews was serious, characterizing it as day to day.

Sun, Mar 30, 2014

''We'll get a better assessment tomorrow,'' Quenneville said.
James Neal and Lee Stempniak also scored for the Penguins, who won their second straight and snapped a three-game home losing streak. Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves in his 36th victory of the season.
Orpik's hit on Toews occurred with 6:30 remaining in the middle period. The two were going for a loose puck.
''It was a big hit,'' Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. ''You could tell he was trying to hit him hard. He knew who he was hitting. It's tough when you see your captain get hit like that.''
Quenneville said he needed to see a replay of Orpik's hit. Bylsma said he only saw the hit live, and believed it was clean. Orpik agreed.

Three Stars

  1. Marc-Andre Fleury
    #29, Pittsburgh
  2. Sidney Crosby
    #87, Pittsburgh
  3. James Neal
    #18, Pittsburgh
''There's no penalty, so I don't know,'' Orpik said. ''I think that hit happens 10 times a game.''
It's been a rough stretch for injuries for the defending Stanley Cup champions, who will be without star forward Kane for the rest of the regular season because of a lower-body injury. Bryan Bickell is out with an upper-body injury but is expected to return soon.
Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa played with Orpik with the Penguins during their run to the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals.
''(Orpik) is a heavy hitter,'' Hossa said. ''That's his game. It's never easy to play against him. Sometimes he's on the borderline, but I know him as a fair guy and that's how I remember him.''
The injury to Toews galvanized the Blackhawks, who dominated play in the third period. But Fleury held up just fine.
Crosby capped a 2-on-1 rush for Pittsburgh at 15:09 of the third, sending a wrist shot over the shoulder of Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford. He added an empty-netter with 1:16 left for his 36th goal and league-leading 99th point of the season.
''Obviously, they were coming and they put a lot of pressure on us,'' Crosby said. ''They started to take a few more risks and we were able to capitalize.''
Sheldon Brookbank scored for the Blackhawks, who have lost three straight in regulation for the first time since February 2012.
The Penguins and Blackhawks started the month at a snowy Soldier Field, part of the NHL Stadium Series. Chicago cruised to a 5-1 victory over Pittsburgh on March 1 in the beginning of a rough month for each team.
''We remember that snowy night in Chicago,'' Bylsma said. ''They took it to us pretty good. We wanted to respond in this game and I think we did.''
The Blackhawks and Penguins began the day with identical near-.500 March records and one win in each of their last four games.
Injuries to top forwards have played a role; Chicago played its sixth in a row without Kane, while former NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin missed his fourth straight for Pittsburgh. Both are expected to return for the postseason.
Chicago added another big name to the list after the loss of Toews.
''We've played 11 games in 19 days, it's a busy stretch of the year,'' Quenneville said. ''There have been some stretches in the last three games that have showed that maybe this team needs a break.''
Chicago carried the play early, Andrew Shaw hitting a post less than two minutes into the game. But Pittsburgh scored twice in 21 seconds, taking an early 2-0 lead.
Neal snapped a wrist shot past Crawford on a 2-on-1 and Stempniak got behind Johnny Oduya after a lead pass from Matt Niskanen and beat Crawford between the pads. Neal has 10 points in his last nine games against Chicago.
Pittsburgh had a chance to add to its lead in the second period, but came up short on two power-play opportunities.
Brookbank then delivered for the Blackhawks, cutting the deficit in half when he blasted a slap shot from the point behind Fleury.
NOTES: Chicago last visited Pittsburgh in December 2011. ... Pittsburgh native Brandon Saad played his first game in his hometown. ... Joe Vitale and Simon Despres were scratched for the Penguins. ... Chicago scratched David Rundblad, Jeremy Morin, Matt Carey and Michal Rozsival. ... Pittsburgh hosts Carolina on Tuesday, while Chicago is home to Minnesota on Thursday.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Steelers get value with Blount signing

By Scott Brown
March 28, 2014

PITTSBURGH -- The team with the least amount of salary cap continues to find ways to plug holes on its roster. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers added a thumper to their backfield on Friday when they signed former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount to a two-year contract. 

Blount, just like the signing of wide receiver Lance Moore a week ago, gives the Steelers a proven NFL player and one who adds depth to a position that had been conspicuously lacking it. 

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
AP Photo/Matt SlocumLeGarrette Blount rushed for four TDs, including this 75-yarder in the playoffs against the Colts.
That the Steelers have remained active in free agency despite hovering so close to the spending ceiling -- they were roughly $1 million under the cap prior to the Blount signing -- is not a surprise. 

Remember, this is the organization that was supposedly in the salary cap equivalent of Leavenworth only a month ago. The Steelers have since put on another clinic in managing the cap, as they have shed salary without compromising the core of the team. 

They created enough room under the cap to sign starting safety Mike Mitchell, add depth along their offensive line, as well as other positions, and compensate for the loss of Jerricho Cotchery by signing Moore. 

Blount, the Steelers’ latest addition, is 27, has rushed for more than 2,000 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry in four NFL seasons. 

Blount was one of the better running backs at the end of last season. 

Just ask the Colts. 

Blount steamrolled them in the AFC playoffs in January, rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-22 Patriots win. 

The 6-foot, 250-pounder is cut in the mold of a Steelers running back, and fans who embraced a player nicknamed “The Bus” will be delighted to know that Blount’s moniker is “The Winnebago.” 

That is not to say fans should expect a Jerome Bettis redux in Blount. 

The Steelers are committed to Le'Veon Bell as their feature back -- as they should be -- and the former second-round draft pick will get the majority of the carries assuming he builds on a stellar rookie campaign. 

Blount does provide the Steelers much-needed insurance behind Bell. 

Just as significant, he gives them options. 

With another ball-carrier who packs a punch, the Steelers can reduce some of the wear and tear on Bell by incorporating Blount into the running game. 

That could prolong Bell’s career, and in the short-term it would allow the Steelers to wear down defenses by hammering them with two big running backs. 

Whatever role Blount assumes, the Steelers improved by signing him. 

And they continue to improve themselves despite limited room under the salary cap.

A new Pirates generation

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, March 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates rode an MVP campaign from Andrew McCutchen and a Comeback Player of the Year Award from Francisco Liriano to their first postseason berth in 20 years. Can they do it again?

It'll all be so different.
How could it not?
When that cannon burst comes Monday afternoon at a crammed-to-capacity PNC Park and the 128th edition of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club climbs from the dugout, sure, those will be familiar faces. Andrew McCutchen. Jason Grilli. Francisco Liriano. Russell Martin. Neil Walker. Most everyone who mattered to a magical 2013 except A.J. Burnett. All back for another swing at another sensational summer.
At the same time, there will be so little familiarity to the feel. Not on the field. Not off it.
Not with the Pirates embarking on a fresh new journey for a fresh new generation.
“It's hard to explain why it's different, but it is,” Clint Barmes was saying a few days ago in Bradenton. “There was a nervousness in here last year, obviously more among the younger guys. That's gone now. I mean gone. That doesn't mean we're complacent. If anything, I think it's helped because we can just focus on getting better rather than on nervous energy.”
More than a few players brought this up unsolicited during spring training. And it makes sense.
Remember McCutchen raising his arms to the heavens in center field on the night of win No. 82?
“It wasn't just us young guys,” Jordy Mercer said. “There were guys like Cutch who'd been here a long time and hadn't been in the playoffs. Actually, even the vets who had been in the playoffs, maybe they hadn't experienced anything like what happened in Pittsburgh.”
There's more to it, of course: This camp opened with no more than a job or two on the line, maybe just long reliever. Everyone else knew they could use spring training the way it's intended: Prepare for the season.
So if that meant Gerrit Cole “throwing nothing but fastballs to a guy I could get out easily,” as he did one day in Fort Myers, so be it. It's not like he needed to put up zeroes to make the rotation.
The result could be seen across camp: Players looked more relaxed but also more locked in.
“I haven't seen anything like it,” observed 82-year-old patriarch Bill Virdon, not one prone to spring hyperbole. “The work ethic here has been amazing.”
It's as if the team doesn't need a singular leader, much less one as vocal and visible as Burnett.
“Nothing changes about this team's leadership,” Grilli insisted. “We had people in here last season who were part of that. Nothing changes at all.”
Read into that as you will.
Burnett wasn't the ogre some are now trying to paint, but neither was he universally beloved. That was only exacerbated in the playoffs when he behaved petulantly after Clint Hurdle chose Cole for Game 5 in St. Louis.
And yet, it's telling that the Pirates still offered Burnett $12 million.
“Look, there's A.J. and there's J.A., as I always tell him,” Jeff Locke said. “The J.A. was for jackass. He could be that, and we all knew it. But he's A.J. That man did so much for this team and city, and no one can deny that.”
Locke, one of Burnett's best friends on the team, mounted an intensive one-man lobbying effort to bring him back, only to watch him sign with Philadelphia — one year, $16 million — and stay closer to his Maryland home.
“Honestly, I thought he'd retire,” Locke said. “But he made the right decision for him and his family.”
But for the Pirates?
The only certainty about this team's leadership is that there's presently no alpha male. McCutchen leads by example, not so much by word. Martin motivates the pitching staff, but that can be isolated. Liriano has the Latin quarter. Travis Snider and Walker are popular. Grilli can be loud.
Maybe Grilli was right in that it's all over the place.
“It'll be fine,” the closer said with a grin. “Hey, we can't share all our little clubhouse secrets. Trust me, we've got it under control.”
There's nothing more jarring about the Pirates' metamorphosis than how the rest of baseball has changed its view of them. The same executives and scouts and agents who were calling them a laughingstock as recently as the fall of 2012 now lavish them with praise.
Mike Matheny is offering the sincerest form of flattery by having his Cardinals adopt the defensive shifts the Pirates use more than any team. The Pirates hardly pioneered the shifts — Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon is universally credited for that — but improving from 25th in defensive efficiency to fifth in a three-year span has brought much attention.
Maddon himself said this spring that these Pirates remind him of his upstart Rays five years ago. “It's really nice,” he added, “when you can build around the best player in baseball in center field.”
The Reds, Brewers and Cubs know the Pirates are real, too. And be sure that all the public feel-good for their rise won't be shared within the Central Division. Not after they went 45-31 against their peers.
“Every year is new, but they're going to have a good team,” the Cardinals' Matt Holliday said two weeks ago in Jupiter, Fla. “They have a similar team to last year, a lot of talent, young players … and their bullpen is really good.”
Talk about different.
Maybe the most moving difference will be the one that reaches across Western Pennsylvania.
Two decades of losing cost the Pirates two decades of public passion, notably with the younger generation that turned toward our other two teams. Baseball had become uncool. PNC Park became a place where parents dragged their kids.
John Miko, a Pony League coach in Portage, Cambria County, said enrollment there has increased from 192 five years ago to a record 242 this year. He's also noticed “more kids mimicking the Pirates' batting stances, tucking their ears in their hats, flashing the Zoltan.”
Jim Kelly, a Little League umpire in Allison Park, said games last summer were scheduled around the Pirates for the first time. “That was the kids,” he added. “They wanted to watch Liriano pitch or Cutch hit.”
Vinnie Deleonibus, who coaches baseball and softball in Shaler, said of his system's 42 teams, “There isn't one without a 22. And most have 18, 34 or 24.”
That's McCutchen, Walker, Burnett and Alvarez.
“For years, it was 87, 71, 36 and 86,” he continued, referring to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. “This is a dramatic shift.”
Sure is. It'll translate into the seats, too.
The Pirates won't give out specifics, but season-ticket sales have increased 40 percent this offseason. Average attendance isn't expected to challenge PNC Park's record of 30,076, set in its inaugural season, but crowds will be up.
They'll also be more intense, more knowledgeable. There will be two-strike claps, more recognition of a player who grounds out to advance a runner.
But all that comes with extra scrutiny, and the crowds who taunted Johnny Cueto also will expect more from the home side.
“That's fine. We welcome that,” Walker said. “Sure beats the alternative.”
There's one other difference, and it shouldn't go underestimated: These Pirates are clinging to an anger that, to hear them tell it, feels very real.
Sure, they've been mad in the past, whether it was over Tony La Russa rubbing their faces in a blowout or the Brewers bombing them all over creation. But this anger is so much more meaningful.
It's over Game 5.
“It's never left us, I can tell you that,” said Gerrit Cole, the starter in that 6-1 loss at Busch. “We had our goal right there … and it got away. It hurt. And don't get me wrong. We aren't going to dwell on it. But we do know it was there for us. And that feeling, man, that's something you don't want to lose.”
Even Hurdle, who's made a theme of putting 2013 into the past, is on board.
“The angst that you could cut with a knife in that room after Game 5, the disappointment, that wasn't our goal,” the manager said. “We took down some mile markers along the way that were very significant to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. But it's not like we're just going to look back at last season and say, ‘You know what? This'll hold ‘em for a while.' It's one out of 21. One!”
He raised one finger. One winning season out of 21.
“We are focused, this group, on building a new legacy, a new history for the Pirates and our fan base. And that starts this year. It starts now.”

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Penguins clinch playoff spot with 2-1 win

By Rusty Miller
March 28, 2014
Beau Bennett #19 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his third-period goal with teammates James Neal #18 and Robert Bortuzzo #41 in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 28, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Pittsburgh defeated Columbus 2-1. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Penguins have struggled at times in an injury-filled season.
When a game is in the balance, however, they still have the personnel and the experience to end up with the two points.
Chris Kunitz and Beau Bennett scored goals 47 seconds apart midway through the third period and Marc-Andre Fleurymade 35 saves and the Penguins clinched a playoff spot with a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night.
''I thought to a man we stepped up,'' coach Dan Bylsma said after his team ended a string of three regulation defeats. ''We're fighting for every inch we can get right now. Tonight, this was exactly what we've talked about and wanted from this game. It was a playoff-type game, with playoff-type intensity.''
The Penguins are now at 99 points to move closer to clinching the Metropolitan Division title.
But it was far from easy, particularly without star forward Evgeni Malkin (foot) and other injured mainstays such as Paul Martin, Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang.

Fri, Mar 28, 2014

Bennett hadn't played in the past 50 games after surgery on his wrist. Yet he came up with the game-winning goal.
''Skating on my own, it's a lot of skill stuff,'' he said of the hours spent rehabbing the injury and trying to get back into game shape. ''It's something that's grown my game even with being out. I felt pretty good out there.''
Fleury was at his best early - and late. He made a terrific save on the first shift on Cam Atkinson's shot off a deflection. Then he made huge saves on Brandon Dubinsky and Atkinson during a scrum in front of the net in the final seconds.
''He was outstanding all game,'' Bylsma said.
After a chippy game with lots of hard checks and few great scoring chances, the Penguins finally broke a scoreless battle at 10:35.

Three Stars

  1. Marc-Andre Fleury
    #29, Pittsburgh
  2. Chris Kunitz
    #14, Pittsburgh
  3. James Wisniewski
    #21, Columbus
Sidney Crosby carried the puck through the neutral zone and slid a pass to Kunitz whose wrister from the top of the left circle avoided the outstretched stick of defenseman James Wisniewski to beat backup goalie Curtis McElhinney, who had stopped the first 28 shots he faced. It was Kunitz's 34th goal.
Before that goal could be announced to a capacity crowd of 18,908, Bennett skated with the puck up the right wing on an odd-man rush. He tucked a hard wrist shot inside the far post for his second of the season at 11:22.
''That first one, it shot through our defenseman and unfortunately I picked it up late,'' said McElhinney, who took over in place of the flu-ridden Sergei Bobrovsky. ''The second one they capitalized on a 2-on-1. It's a simple game; sometimes it's just a matter of getting the right bounces.''
McElhinney had 29 saves as Columbus dropped to 0-5 against the Penguins this season.
''In four of those five games, it's been good hockey,'' said Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards. ''It just came down to one or two plays - and they were the team that made the plays.''
Wisniewski scored a power-play goal for Columbus with 3:06 left to cut the lead to 2-1. Pittsburgh hung on as Fleury stood tall in the last 10 seconds to turn away the potential tying goal.
''I took a shot and we kept banging,'' said Dubinsky. ''They collapsed on the net pretty hard and the puck squirted off to the side.''
The Blue Jackets came into the game in a four-way tie for a wild-card spot in the East.
Despite the loss, the Blue Jackets still hold the first wild-card spot in the East. They own the tiebreaker against the other three teams with 80 points (Detroit, Washington, Toronto) due to wins in regulation.
''We have to understand the urgency and desperation we have to come out with tomorrow (at Carolina),'' Wisniewski said.
Notes: The Columbus Dispatch reported on Friday that the Blue Jackets are 29th in the 30-team NHL in attendance, drawing 14,347 per game. Despite a 23 percent increase in season-ticket sales to 8,600, attendance has actually dropped from last season (14,564). ... After a sunny, warm day in Columbus, a weatherman appearing on the monitors during the second intermission was loudly booed for predicting snow on Saturday.
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