Monday, June 30, 2014

Volquez: the Pirates' new comeback story

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Edinson Volquez (36) throws against the New York Mets in the first inning of the baseball game on Sunday, June 29, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Keith Srakocic, AP

PITTSBURGH — The Pirates have become the place to go to resurrect pitching careers and, two days after acquiring Ernesto Frieri from the Angels, one of the more recent projects showed just how it’s done.
Last year, Francisco Liriano was the comeback star. This year, Frieri will have to stand in line behind Vance Worley and Edinson Volquez.
Volquez, who finished 9-12 with a 5.17 ERA last year with the Dodgers and Padres, pitched six masterful shutout innings Sunday to defeat the Mets 5-2. He evened his record at 6-6, tying Gerrit Cole for the team lead in wins, and lowered his ERA to 4.07.
But that number is misleading. If not for a disastrous eight runs in two and a third innings two starts ago, it would be 3.40. Since that blowup, Volquez has allowed just one earned run in 14 innings, striking out eight and recording two wins.
“It was fun to watch Edinson,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “He continues to work hard and has bounced back.
“He got himself into trouble in the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth innings but collected himself, slowed down and got out of it. He gave all he had and had a very solid body of work.”
Volquez was all smiles in the locker room, too, but it wasn’t because of his ability to work out of jams – the Mets stranded 11 runners, eight in Volquez’ six innings.
“It’s not fun pitching out of jams,” Volquez said. “I was able to throw the right pitch when I needed to and I was able to keep the ball down.
“I threw my breaking pitch for strikes and they only got singles and doubles. I was able to get of trouble. But I’m really happy we got the win.”
Volquez’ resurgence has also helped the Pirates bullpen. He is now second on the team in innings pitched and, outside of that one bad game in Cincinnati, has averaged over six innings per start.
“I’m watching video and making adjustments,” Volquez said. “I have a pretty high comfort level now.”
The Pirates’ other 2014 reclamation projects are giving fans a pretty high comfort level, too. Worley is 2-0 in three starts with a 1.74 ERA after going 1-5 with a 7.21 ERA with the Twins last year. Frieri pitched a scoreless inning in his only appearance so far.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

'Vanimal' act scores with Pirates

June 28, 2014

Vance Worley - New York Mets v Pittsburgh Pirates
Vance Worley #46 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches in the first inning against the New York Mets during the game at PNC Park on June 26, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)

After a year in hibernation, “The Vanimal” is back. This time on the other side of Pennsylvania.

Three years ago, Vance Worley crashed an icon-laden Philadelphia Phillies rotation and made the baseball world take notice. Nobody had seen a pitcher like this — unless that pitcher was Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from “Major League.”

Mild-mannered away from the diamond, Worley morphed into Vanimal Lecter on the mound. It wasn't that he had overpowering stuff. It was his fearless attitude and offbeat appearance.

The bespectacled Worley wrote messages to himself on his hat, shook his raised glove like a fistful of dice before each pitch and attacked hitters with a barrage of strikes. He was baseball's best animal act since Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

Worley also won a lot, going 11-3 in 2011 and finishing third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. But the ride ended abruptly. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed his career. The Minnesota Twins made him their Opening Day starter last year, but Worley's ERA soon ballooned into the 7s. His control made Ricky Vaughn look precise.

And that is how Pirates general manager Neal Huntington landed Worley, 26, for “cash considerations” in March. Three months later, the man looks like a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

I caught up with Worley by his locker (yes, the Vanimal shelter) late Thursday, after a home debut at PNC Park (yes, Vanimal House) in which he'd stepped into his Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” cleats, strapped on his Wild Thing glasses and beaten the Mets, 5-2. He has allowed four earned runs in three starts.

Worley has quite a story to tell. Several, actually. And since it looks like he might stick around for a bit, we should probably get to know him better.

So pull up a chair, Vanimal friends, and learn about …

• The glove shake. “In college (at Long Beach State), in an intersquad game, our assistant pitching coach was calling out my pitches from the dugout 'cause in Southern California everybody's trying to be smarter than everyone else. They were picking my pitches. I'm thinking, these guys are cheatin'. So I started moving the glove, and when I started beating them, I looked in the dugout and said, ‘Yeah, I got your tricks.' I've been doing it ever since.”

• His Asian heritage (Worley is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Taiwanese and 50 percent European descent; his mother is from Hong Kong). “It's a fun game when you're half-and-half. You start looking at other people, wondering what they are. Eventually you meet enough of them that you start playing the game with them and guessing what everybody is.”

• Avoiding alcohol in high school and college (and largely thereafter, he says) because his once-wild father warned him of the dangers: “I always obeyed everything he said. I never really went out. All my friends, they liked to go out and have a good time, and I knew what I wanted, and that was to play professional baseball.”

• How the “Vanimal” nickname, given to him because of his weight-room work ethic in college, became known in the majors: “I don't go around telling people that's my nickname or anything, but when I got to the big leagues (in 2010), I was in the lunch room one day, and guys started passing my glove around the clubhouse. I'd written (“Vanimal”) inside it. So all the guys started calling me that, and they're like, ‘It's on your glove, really? How professional is that?' I'm like, ‘Come on guys, it's not that big a deal, is it?' The fans started seeing it on TV, and that's just how it went.”

The glasses, meanwhile, came about years ago because Worley's eyes dried up whenever he tried contacts.

What else?

Well, Worley goes by the Twitter handle @VANIMAL_46 and has more than 50,000 followers. He may have been destined to pitch for the Pirates because he attended McClatchy High School in Sacramento (named for the great-grandfather of former Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy). And he can still pitch. Just a bit differently. His strikeout rate isn't what it was in Philly, but he changes speeds, works the corners and walks almost no one.

Pitching coach Ray Searage loves what Worley brings. Namely, strikes.

“He does everything the organization tries to teach the young guys,” Searage said. “Work quickly, throw strikes, get ahead, stay ahead, put 'em away. He attacks.”

The Pirates have become something of a home for stray pitchers — The Vanimal Rescue League, if you will (although you certainly don't have to). Jim Benedict, a special assistant to the GM and noted pitching guru, has a lot to do with that. Worley says he wouldn't be here without Benedict's help in rebuilding his confidence and reworking his mechanics.

Will it last? Worley is focused only on his next start as the Pirates' rotation returns to health.

Searage isn't looking ahead, either.

“Right now, he's got the feeling for it,” Searage said. “We're just going to ride it out.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Angels, Pirates swap relievers

The Associated Press
June 27, 2014

Things have not gone well for Jason Grilli of late. (USATSI)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Los Angeles Angels hope the Jason Grilli they're getting from thePittsburgh Pirates is the dominant version of last year rather than the struggling one of this year.
The Pirates feel the same way about Ernesto Frieri.
The Angels and Pirates swapped the relievers on Friday night, each team optimistic that a change of scenery will be enough to allow their new arms to revert to their old ways.
"Obviously we're trying to get a bullpen with some chemistry and upgrade it," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "and I think Jason Grilli is a guy who can hopefully come in and fill a role, and if he pitches as well as he did last year he could be really important to us."
The 37-year-old Grilli has struggled with his command this season, and was 0-2 with a 4.87 ERA and 11 saves in 22 appearances. But he was pivotal to the Pirates' resurgence last year, when he piled up 33 saves and had a 2.70 ERA in helping the club to a 94-68 record.
"It's a difficult trade to make from the standpoint that Jason had a good run here, and did a lot for our franchise both on and off the field," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's loved by a lot of guys in the clubhouse and a lot of fans."
Grilli is expected to join the Angels in Kansas City on Saturday.
"Much like Ernie, he struggled with some things here and there this year after a terrific year last year," Scioscia said. "Once he gets settled and we can evaluate exactly where he is and where his role is going to be to make us as deep as we can be, we'll have a better idea."
Ernesto Frieri
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsErnesto Frieri has a 7.92 ERA in the ninth inning or later this season.
Frieri had a career-best 37 saves for the Angels last year, but the 28-year-old right-hander is just 0-3 with 6.39 ERA and 11 saves in 34 appearances this season.
The final straw may have come the previous night in Los Angeles, when he loaded the bases in the ninth inning against Minnesota. Joe Smith relieved him and gave up a bases-clearing double but bounced back to strike out Kendrys Morales to preserve the 6-4 victory.
Frieri has allowed at least one run in four of his last five appearances, and while he's thrown six shutout frames in the eighth inning, he has a 7.92 ERA in the ninth inning or later.
"Ernesto is a guy we've pursued for a couple of years but haven't been about to get," Huntington said. "He's going through a rough stretch but he's doing things our scouts like and our (statistical) analysts like. We've had success bringing guys in and having them benefit from a change of scenery, a change of league. That's what we're hoping for here."

Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press

Neal trade not pretty, but who wants that?

June 27, 2014
PHILADELPHIA ­— The restructuring of the Penguins' front office now complete, the reconstruction of their roster formally began with Jim Rutherford's shot heard round the hockey world Friday night at the NHL Draft, as announced from the on-stage podium of one Gary B. Bettman.
“Is it OK if I announce a trade?” the commissioner screeched to the Wells Fargo Center crowd, apparently — and hilariously — expecting something other than the belligerent booing he and everyone else had been hearing all evening.
Nope. They're Flyers fans. They don't come equipped with a second sound, and they aren't exactly accustomed to hosting hockey events in June.
The commissioner began, anyway.
“The Nashville Predators trade Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling …”
He paused, followed by a striking second or two of silence for the suspense.
“ … to Pittsburgh ... ”
“ … for James Neal!”
And yes, I'm describing the reaction on this side of the commonwealth, although it was easy to tell from the instant tidal wave of social media aimed this way that it was pretty much the same back home.
I get it, too. Really.
Neal was a deservedly popular player in Pittsburgh, with one 40-goal season and 89 goals in 199 games and his three full seasons. He's a big guy who can fly. He's an underappreciated passer. He's tougher than most might know. He wasn't anywhere near the knucklehead some of his suspensions would suggest, I can tell you from getting to know the man, and he wasn't any kind of problem in the locker room that couldn't have been solved with tougher leadership.
And way, way above all that, Neal was a wonderful fit alongside Evgeni Malkin. That can't be underscored enough. Rutherford has essentially acknowledged that Jussi Jokinen won't be stopped from heading into free agency July 1. That will mean bye-bye to both of Malkin's wingers.
Could Beau Bennett be one?
He'll need to eat a ton of Wheaties this summer.
Could Rutherford add another?
It sure came off that that way when the GM openly stated he'll search for a free agent “suitable” for Malkin.
But Hornqvist could be part of that, too, and he'll be coming to a team with more offensive talent and a more offensive system than anything he could have imagined in Nashville.
It's funny, but they say that the team that gets the best player wins the trade. I'm not so sure. I won't be surprised if this trade is a W for the Predators, even far into the future. Maybe a decisive one. But trades are judged individually only by fools. They should always be about impact on the team. And from that standpoint, upon hearing more about the incoming players, I'm not at all down on this.
Stay with me here.
Digging beneath the numbers, Hornqvist and Spaling are much more the grit/character types the Penguins have correctly identified as their primary missing element.
Hornqvist, a 27-year-old right winger, is no trademark tough guy, to say the least. In his only four full seasons with the Predators, he scored 30, 21, 27 and 22 goals, and his penalty-minute totals were about the same. He's a skilled guy to the bone. But he's also got a penchant — no, passion — for scoring those goals right near the crease. He's a relentless corner presence. He's got an innate defensive conscience. And, if you dig really deep into the advanced statistics that Rutherford promised he'd apply, he's got excellent ratings for puck possession.
On that last count alone, Mike Johnston will love him.
Spaling, a 25-year-old left winger, is the obvious throw-in. His goal totals with Nashville were 10, 9 and 13. But he's also been a solid penalty-killer and punishing hitter, two other areas of need for the Penguins.
Now, listen to Rutherford when I asked about the grit/character stuff: “These guys play the game hard. They play with an edge. And they're great team guys. They'll be good in our room. And we got two players like that.”
No, this isn't pretty. It sure doesn't come with the mega-splash of some of Ray Shero's trades.
But let me ask: Is pretty what the Penguins were missing?
This team has no trouble scoring, certainly not in the regular season. But it did have trouble scoring within 10 feet, which is where goals come in the playoffs. Or executing with structure. Or showing any semblance of puck support. Or creating space for Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
I'm not suggesting Hornqvist and Spaling are the answer.
But I am suggesting that we saw ample evidence that the old roster wasn't the answer, either. And anyone who thought change would come painlessly was being naïve.
This is a painful step but a vitally necessary one.
Hold those boos.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic. Add Dejan Kovacevic to your Google+ circles.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Playing To Lose: The Drafting of Mario Lemieux (Trailer)

Joey Porter driven by new football role

By Scott Brown
June 26, 2014

PITTSBURGH -- He sat at a table with Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor a couple weeks ago, and there was nothing remarkable in itself about Joey Porter chatting up his former teammates in a cafeteria. 

[+] EnlargeJoey Porter
Sean Brady/NFLPhotoLibrary/Getty ImagesJoey Porter plans to approach his duties as a coach in the same emotional way that he did as a player for the Steelers.
But watching Polamalu and Taylor listen intently to Porter, it seemed like 2005 all over again. That's when the two were young players following the lead of the brash, fully charged linebacker who may have been most responsible for the Pittsburgh Steelers ending a quarter-century Super Bowl drought that season. 

A couple of hours later, Porter revealed just how much time has passed since he was the soul and guts of a defense in which players fed off the emotional lather that once possessed "J Peezy" to try to board theBaltimore Ravens teams bus after a game because he had unfinished business with none other than Ray Lewis

Talking about his fledging coaching career after a minicamp practice, Porter candidly said, "I don't have all of the answers. As a player I would say something slick like I knew it all. As a coach I've got to be humble because I don't." 

A humble Joey Porter? That must mean up is down, black is white and Johnny Manziel is a recluse. 

But watching Porter lead the linebackers in a drill during offseason practices or give pointers to one of the players he is now mentoring served up proof that the five-alarm fire that drove him as a player has simply been transferred to Porter's latest endeavor. 

"I'm a coach like I played," said Porter, who joined Mike Tomlin's staff as a defensive assistant in February. "I'm going to coach with my emotion. The coaching staff that I have the opportunity to work with is amazing because these guys know exactly who I am." 

Indeed when linebackers coach Keith Butler told his players about Porter trying to get on the Ravens' bus, something that shaped his "J Peezy" persona in Pittsburgh, he didn't relay the story just to draw laughs. 

He was trying to make a point. 

"Joey always had that kind of barn boss attitude when he played," Butler said, "and we need some of that." 

Yes, they do. 

The Steelers managed just 34 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1990, and their defense scares nobody this side of their own fan base. 

Tomlin didn't just hire Porter to pump up the volume at Steelers' headquarters and instill swagger in the linebackers' meeting room. The latter will work closely with 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones, who plays right outside linebacker, the position that Porter owned during his eight-year career with the Steelers. 

Jones played extensively as a rookie but managed just one sack. It is critical for a defense that slipped appreciably in 2013 that Jones makes a big jump in his second season. 

Jones has gotten stronger and the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder will play faster this season because he has a much better grasp of the defense. 

Meanwhile, Porter can only help Jones develop a repertoire of pass-rushing moves, something that was lacking from his game last season. 

"Pass rush is all [about] believing that you can beat the guy and execute your craft," said Porter, whose 60 sacks from 1999-2006 rank fifth on the Steelers' all-time list. "You've got to work on it. You just can't go out there and not do pass rush during the week and go out there and expect to get a sack on Sunday. It's not that easy, so you have to really work. That's what I'm trying to get him to do is just work." 

It would be an understatement to say that Porter has a willing protégé in Jones. 

[+] EnlargeJarvis Jones
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesOne of Joey Porter's primary roles as a mentor is to help Jarvis Jones develop pass-rushing moves.
"I'm in his head every day, always asking questions, always trying to figure out the best way to do it," Jones said. "He's always on my butt about just grinding. Not saying that I don't push myself but he's always after me just to keep me going. There's always a next level and that's what he's brought to our whole unit." 

There is a limit to how much Porter can help the Steelers' defense though he has kept himself in the kind of shape that suggests he is not far physically from the days when he tormented quarterbacks. 

But Porter, who retired after the 2012 season, is clearly serious about coaching and is not just doing it while he figures out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. 

Porter spent last season as an assistant coach at Colorado State, his alma mater, and he said he wants to go as far as coaching will take him. 

"I can't see myself putting on a suit and tie and sitting behind a desk for eight hours. That would just drive me crazy," Porter said. "I need the smell of the grass. I need to be out here on a football field. I feel like I'm at my best when I'm out here. Even though I can't play no more I still feel like I have a good opportunity to help kids who want to get there." 

He is still a kid himself in that he is only 37 and is just getting started in coaching. Porter is young enough that a handful of his former Steelers teammates are still in the locker room he once dominated with his force of personality. 

Polamalu and Taylor jokingly remind him of how things have changed by occasionally calling him "Coach Porter." But Polamalu, who is nearing the end of his playing career, knows how valuable it is having Porter back in the Steelers' building. 

"He really embodied the Steelers' way and the Steelers' attitude," the veteran strong safety said. 

Now coach Porter just has to do it in a different capacity. 

"I see all these young guys now. I used to be that," Porter said. "Fifteen years in this business, working as a player [and] now being a coach. In time I don't care who you are, you will humble yourself at some point in time when you get older, and I can just say I'm older. I'm wiser than I was at 22."

Pirates’ Gamble Produces a Star

By Tyler Kepner
June 26, 2014
Gregory Polanco, a pitcher when the Pirates found him, hit a three-run homer against the Mets in the fifth inning Thursday. CreditJustin K. Aller/Getty Images
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The latest Pittsburgh Pirates phenom is 6 feet 4 inches, strong but rangy, with a left arm that could throw baseballs 87 miles an hour at age 17. He looks more like a pitcher than a speedy outfielder with power and uncanny plate discipline, which is what he is and what Rene Gayo thought he could be.
He is Gregory Polanco, and he was pitching when Gayo first saw him in the Dominican Republic in 2009. Polanco had pitched for only a year, he said, and he did not especially care for it. Most teams were underwhelmed; his largest bonus offer was $70,000 when Gayo, the Pirates’ director of Latin American scouting, offered $150,000 — if Polanco would sign as a hitter.
Gayo got his answer when Polanco hugged him. When some of his own scouts mocked him for the decision, Gayo said, he fired them all.
I’ve made a career out of doing what I thought was right when everybody else was saying something else,” said Gayo, who has scouted for 25 years. “It’s worked out pretty good.”
Polanco burst into the majors this month by reaching base in his first 14 games, quickly establishing himself as the Pirates’ leadoff hitter and right fielder, part of a dynamic outfield with Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen. Polanco, 22, raised his average to .338 on Thursday by going 2 for 3 with a walk and a three-run homer in the opener of a four-game series against the Mets, a 5-2 Pirates victory in Pittsburgh.
“If you ask him, he knows he can be better than what he’s doing now,” McCutchen said before the game. “If you ask anybody else, he’s doing plenty. But not in his eyes.”
Polanco led off Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays by taking five pitches in a row, drawing a walk. He stole second, took third on an overthrow and scored on a groundout by McCutchen. The Pirates won by a run.
The Pirates have won 10 of 16 games since Polanco’s promotion on June 10, climbing above .500 after a dismal start. Manager Clint Hurdle said the revival had not been all about Polanco — the pitching has improved, too — but his energy has been infectious for the veterans.
“It kind of hits them with a reignite button,” Hurdle said.
The Pirates won a wild-card playoff spot last year after decades of losing, and as they elbow into another race, Polanco’s readiness raises a fascinating question. If the Pirates had promoted him earlier, and risked making him eligible for salary arbitration sooner, would their record be better than it is? Or does his immediate success validate the Pirates’ belief that Polanco, who started last season in Class A, needed more seasoning to be ready?
“I’m glad that we’re asking questions that way as opposed to ‘man, he’s really struggling; you moved too quickly,’ ” said Frank Coonelly, the Pirates’ president. “I’d much rather err on the side of ‘maybe we could have been a little quicker’ if it means that he’s locked in when he gets up here and he’s feeling comfortable.”
This much seems clear: Polanco is in the big leagues to stay. He hit .347 with seven homers and 15 steals in Class AAA this season, after hitting .285 with 12 homers and 38 steals at three levels in 2013.
His breakout came the year before, when the Pirates assigned him to their low-Class A affiliate in Charleston, W.Va., with little fanfare. Polanco had hit .218 in two seasons in the Gulf Coast League, but his West Virginia manager, Rick Sofield, saw something.
Sofield, now the Pirates’ first-base coach, said Polanco had a body out of the movie “Avatar” and deceptive speed for someone his size. Players with long, loping strides rarely have the burst that Polanco does. Fewer still, Sofield said, have the athleticism and baseball intellect to apply mechanical adjustments at the plate.
“A lot of guys will try it but not trust it,” Sofield said. “Polanco has the ability to filter through what it means and put it into play. He just grabbed all the information and ran with it and wound up as the best player in that league.”
Gayo had known about the maturity. Polanco came from a structured home, he said, with parents in law enforcement. Gayo also knew about the body control and the quick, compact swing. The raw speed is a bit of a surprise — “It’s insane; it’s like Jim Thome running like Kenny Lofton,” Gayo said — but Polanco’s patience at the plate is not.
He rarely swings at pitches outside the strike zone, averaging 4.03 pitches per plate appearance through Tuesday. (The major league average is 3.84.) Some organizations, like the Mets, work hard to drill a more disciplined hitting philosophy into their hitters’ mind-sets. With Polanco, it came naturally.
“We have guys nowadays who are what I call manufactured pitch-takers,” Gayo said. “This guy’s in hit mode until the last second, and then it might be — ‘No.’ He sees a lot of pitches but not because he’s trying to do that. It’s who he is. He’s just got a great baseball I.Q.”
Polanco said that he had always been able to recognize pitches well and that the approach had helped so far. He had never seen a major league game until he played in one and was moved by the fans’ enthusiasm for him at PNC Park.
“I feel very happy, how they see me there,” he said. “That’s something that makes me proud.”
For Pirates fans, the midseason promotion of an impact player has become an annual event: Marte in 2012, starter Gerrit Cole last June and now Polanco. They wanted to see him sooner, but now that he is here, they should have him for a long time.
Polanco will be in right field, where he belongs.
“Michelangelo, when he looked at the Sistine Chapel, must have thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do better than this,’ ” Gayo said. “That’s kind of how I see him — I don’t know if I can do better than that.”