Saturday, June 27, 2015

Gonchar is what Pens need

Saturday, June 27, 2015, 12:01 a.m.


Nobody from the Penguins was in their hotel lobby when Sergei Gonchar showed up to greet members of his inner circle Friday afternoon.

Hardly a missed opportunity, however. General manager Jim Rutherford already had heard from agent J.P. Barry that Gonchar prefers to play a final NHL season with the Penguins.

What Rutherford needs to hear — Bill Guerin could tell him — is what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can't do despite all their other otherworldly talents.

The franchise centers can't do everything.

And Gonchar could help ease their burden of leadership, which might free Crosby and Malkin to dominate together like they haven't since their “Sarge” helped run the Penguins' room.

As a calming presence, Gonchar would prove priceless even at a $1 million hit. But for the Penguins, the best part about a potential reunion with Gonchar would be the cost.

He might not cost anything. His affinity for the franchise is so strong that he would walk away from any deal if his performance slipped below standard.

Gonchar has accepted his limitations as a 41-year-old with 1,442 games of wear on his wheels. He knows he is no longer a top-four defenseman, and that the Penguins are best served to finally provide ice time to some of their top prospects on the back end.

The Penguins should jump at the opportunity for Gonchar to mentor Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin. They could inquire with Kris Letang about what Gonchar did for him and Brooks Orpik.
He raised those young defensemen into unit anchors.

He lowered the easy-to-boil over blood pressures of Malkin and Crosby, too.

“He was always so calm,” Crosby said more than once.

“I think he just had that thing where he could calm everybody down. I think Geno and I looked to him for that a lot.”

No matter what Rutherford adds this offseason, the Penguins aren't going anywhere next postseason if Crosby and Malkin don't make like Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and each deliver in big moments of series.

I'd like their chances better if somebody could convince them the world wasn't ending with every poor shift or because of every bad call and after every loss. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the Penguins should at least consider the possibility that Gonchar's gift for bringing calm to tense times contributed to an 8-3 record in playoff series, including a 15-6 mark after losses, in the four postseasons from 2007-10.

They should also consider that Gonchar has played in at least 75 percent of his club's games in eight of the past 10 seasons. He missed time only to a separated shoulder, fractured ankle and concussion. Those aren't age-related injuries.

And don't get me going about what Gonchar could do for a power play that has looked lousy even when it was lighting lamps. Crosby and Malkin could be so much better with a proven power-play quarterback.
Reunited with Gonchar in Montreal last season, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said his former Penguins' alternate captain has indeed “slowed down.”

“But he doesn't need to be fast on the power play,” Therrien said. “That's where he's still the old Gonchar.”
I'll tell you what's old. Six years without the Cup coming back to Pittsburgh.

Like their GM, Crosby and Malkin need help to restore the Penguins to the place we all presumed they would stay six years ago: the top.

Every charge needs a “Sarge.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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Mercer's walk-off lifts Pirates to 3-2 win over Braves in 10

By Will Graves
June 27, 2015

Mercer's walk-off lifts Pirates to 3-2 win over Braves in 10
Pittsburgh Pirates' Jordy Mercer, center, gets a face full of whipping cream from teammate A.J. Burnett, left, after he drove in the game-winning run with a hit off Atlanta Braves pitcher Jason Grilli during the 10th inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Friday, June 26, 2015. The Pirates won 3-2. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- - Jordy Mercer's confidence never wavered during another lethargic start at the plate, one that saw him ceding at-bats and playing time to Pittsburgh Pirates rookie teammate Jung Ho Kang.

Pitching Details

The streaky shortstop flourished after a bumpy beginning a year ago. He knew if he just kept grinding, things would even out.
''The last couple weeks I've been hitting the ball so hard, seeing it so well,'' Mercer said. ''I'm in a good place.''
Certainly looks like it. Mercer doubled home Andrew McCutchen with one out in the bottom of the 10th inning to lift the Pirates to a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves on Friday night.
McCutchen doubled off former teammate Jason Grilli(2-3) leading off the inning and three batters later, Mercer's third hit of the game smacked off the right-field wall as the Pirates won for just the second time in their last seven games.
''Leadoff guy gets on, sometimes you can create a situation when a leadoff guy gets on,'' said Grilli, an All-Star closer for the Pirates in 2013. ''I tried to make some pitches and just didn't (do it).''

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Mark Melancon (1-1) pitched a scoreless top of the 10th for Pittsburgh as the Pirates' bullpen didn't allow a hit in three innings of relief. Pedro Alvarezadded two RBIs for the Pirates.
''We have grown into a team that believes it can get things done,'' Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. ''We've still got work to do.''
Juan Uribe homered for Atlanta and Eury Perez had two hits, but the Braves dropped their fourth straight game.
Atlanta's Williams Perez came in unbeaten and had little trouble until the fifth, when a liner off Josh Harrison's bat drilled Perez in his right foot. Perez lay on his stomach for several moments while being tended to by trainers.
He opted to stay in the game, but with his plant leg hobbled, his control abandoned him. Perez walkedNeil Walker on four pitches, balked Walker to second and then hit McCutchen before leaving.
X-rays on the ankle were negative though Perez was wearing a walking boot after the game as a precaution.
''Things like this happen,'' Perez said. ''It's part of the game. I dodged a bullet and I'm hoping to be out there soon.''
Luis Avilan came on to replace Perez, but gave up an infield single to Starling Marte and a flare to center by Alvarez that scored to Walker and McCutchen. The first RBIs off a left-hander by the left-handed Alvarez this season gave Pittsburgh the lead.
It didn't last long. Uribe took a changeup from Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano and sent it out of McCutchen's reach and over the wall in center field for just his third homer since coming to Atlanta in a trade with the Dodgers a month ago.
Liriano bounced back from a rough outing last Saturday in Washington when he was on the losing end of Max Scherzer's no-hitter, giving up two runs on six hits with three walks and three strikeouts. He also made it through seven innings, giving the middle of Pittsburgh's bullpen a needed respite following a heavy workload during the team's recent dip.
The Pirates ran themselves out of a chance to win the game in the ninth, but had little trouble getting to Grilli, who revived his career with the Pirates from 2011-14. McCutchen jumped on Grilli's fastball that jumped over the left-field wall for a ground-rule double. Grilli intentionally walked Marte and after Alvarez struck out Mercer's fly to right kept carrying as McCutchen raced home.
Braves: Atlanta placed RHP Brandon Cunniff on the 15-day disabled list Friday with a right groin strain and recalled RHP Sugar Ray Marimon from Triple-A Gwinnett. Cunniff tweaked the groin in his last appearance against Washington on Thursday. Marimon is 3-2 with a 3.49 ERA in 10 career appearances.
Pirates: Pittsburgh placed RHP Rob Scahill on the 15-day disabled list with right forearm tightness. Scahill (2-4) had given up a run in each of his last two appearances, including the winning home run to Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips in a 5-4, 13-inning loss Thursday night. ... Pittsburgh brought up RHP Deolis Guerra from Triple-A Indianapolis and transferred 1B/OF Andrew Lambo to the 60-day disabled list while he recovers from a bout of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
Braves: Julio Tehran (5-3, 4.67 ERA) starts for Atlanta. Tehran is 2-0 with a 3.29 ERA in five games against Pittsburgh.
Pirates: RHP Charlie Morton will try to bounce back from a nightmarish start last Sunday in Washington, when he gave up nine runs while failing to get out of the first inning, the shortest start of his career. Morton's ERA ballooned to 3.97 while taking his first loss of the season after winning each of his first five starts in his return from offseason hip surgery.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Pirates awash in All-Star candidates

Wednesday, June 24, 2015, 10:33 p.m.
Gerrit Cole
I asked Josh Harrison, at his baseball camp in the North Hills on Wednesday, to pick the top all-star candidates among his Pirates teammates.
“Wow,” he said. “I don't know where to start.”
The Pirates have at least seven legitimate candidates, each of whom Harrison mentioned. And he started in the right place, despite what happened several hours later at PNC Park.
“I know for sure you gotta go with Gerrit Cole,” he said. “A.J. Burnett, (Tony) Watson, (Mark) Melancon, Cutch, (Starling) Marte, (Francisco) Cervelli. The list is endless. It just shows how deep our team is.”
All the hopefuls won't make the team, of course. Too many complications. For one, only Andrew McCutchen has a chance to be voted in (and is the Pirates' only position player who merits a starting spot).
For another, each of the 15 NL teams must be represented among the 34 roster spots. That's how the Pirates once sent Mike Williams and his 6.29 ERA to the Midsummer Classic.
So this won't be a Kansas City Royals situation. The Royals have seven players leading in American League fan votes. At this rate, Freddie Patek will start at shortstop.
It won't be like the 1960 Pirates, either. That team had eight players on the NL roster for two All-Star Games (somebody thought it was a good idea to play a “doubleheader” a few days apart). Since then, the Pirates have put as many as five players in the All-Star Game twice — 1972 and 2013.
I could see anywhere from three to five this year. That wouldn't be out of line. The Pirates, after all, went into Wednesday's game with the NL's second-best record.
So who's most deserving?
My list, in order:
1. Cole: True, he took a Byrd bath Wednesday and probably lost whatever chance he had to start the All-Star Game. But he's still on pace for about 23 wins. The Reds and Marlon Byrd scored five off Cole and pushed his ERA from 1.78 to 2.16. But did I mention he's still on pace for about 23 wins?
2. McCutchen: By first-half performance alone, maybe McCutchen isn't the second-most deserving player. The reason I placed him here? Well, as McCutchen himself put it when talking about how his lengthy early-season slump soon would end: “I'm Andrew McCutchen.” He's one of the faces of his sport, certainly the face of it in Pittsburgh.
He's Andrew McCutchen, and he belongs in the All-Star Game representing this city. It's that simple. He still has a great chance to start the game, too.
3. Melancon: Before Wednesday, he was leading the league in saves and save percentage. He'd faced the minimum 15 batters in his previous five appearances and had a 0.00 ERA this month.
4. Burnett: The twist here is that Burnett, 37th on the all-time strikeout list and the owner of 161 wins, never has been to an All-Star Game. He belongs this year, though a few more solid starts would bolster his case after a couple of shaky ones this month.
5. Cervelli: The NL carried four catchers last year, three the two years before that. Among those with at least 50 games played this season, Cervelli leads in batting average and pitch-framing (according to He's fourth in OPS (behind Buster Posey, Yasmani Grandal and Nick Hundley), 10th in home runs, seventh in caught-stealing percentage and seventh in WAR. Yadier Molina looms here, too, with a Cutch-like rep and some pretty good numbers.
6. Watson: As always, the consummate set-up man. Others are having good years, notably San Diego's Brandon Maurer. But if the idea is to win the game (and that's debatable), Watson would be a wonderful guy to have around.
The fringe candidates would be Marte, who had slipped to 12th in OPS among NL outfielders, and Francisco Liriano.
The moral of the story is that the Pirates have come a long, long ways since the days of Mike Williams and his 6.29 ERA.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Pirates ride big inning to 7-6 win over Reds

By Will Graves
June 24, 2015

Pirates ride big inning to 7-6 win over Reds

Pittsburgh Pirates' Francisco Cervelli follows through on a three-run home run off Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Pedro Villarreal during the fourth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, June 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Andrew McCutchen couldn't help himself. After watching teammate Francisco Cervelli hit a three-run homer that tied the game and chased Cincinnati rookie starter Josh Smith on Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates star center fielder did a spot-on impression of the ever ebullient catcher in the dugout.

Pitching Details

Not that Cervelli minded.
''They're all a bunch of clowns here,'' Cervelli said. ''They're always making fun of me, but I don't care because I'm another clown.''
Minutes later McCutchen offered a slightly more serious trot around the bases, blasting a two-run shot off Pedro Villarreal to cap a fourth-inning outburst as the Pirates ended a three-game losing streak with a 7-6 victory.
Smarting from an ugly sweep in Washington over the weekend that included getting no-hit by Max Scherzer, the Pirates took out their frustrations on the Reds with a brief but impressive display. Pittsburgh's seven-run sprint through the fourth was one more run than they managed in their previous four games combined.
''You lose like we did against the Nationals, you're pretty amped up,'' McCutchen said. ''Somewhat of a slow start, but that's why you play the whole game.''
Rob Scahill (2-3) earned the win in relief of ineffective starter Jeff LockeMark Melancon worked a perfect ninth to pick up his major league-leading 24th save.
Jay Bruce homered and drove in three runs for the Reds. Cincinnati left 12 men on base and went just 4 for 17 with runners in scoring position.
''Usually six (runs) will do it,'' Reds manager Bryan Price said. ''We're in a spot there where we're bringing in a new kid and Josh struggled a bit with his command, that'll certainly get better the more experience he gets because he's a strike-thrower.''
The 27-year-old Smith went an eventful three-plus innings a few hours after being called up from Triple-A Louisville to fill in for Johnny Cueto, who is skipping a start to give his aching elbow a break. Smith worked around five walks in the first three innings before unraveling in the fourth. Pedro Alvarez smacked an RBI double off the wall to get the Pirates going and Cervelli followed with a shot to the Cincinnati bullpen in center to tie the game.
Smith left but Pittsburgh's outburst continued. McCutchen's ninth home run of the season off Villarreal (0-2) capped the Pirates' biggest inning of the year, as a four-run deficit turned into a 7-4 lead.
''We just kept reminding us we didn't need to be in a hurry,'' Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. ''We wanted to have the best at-bat we could, one pitch at a time. See the pitches you really need to see.''
It also helped erase a shaky start by Locke, who gave up four runs in four innings. Some spotty defense behind him didn't help, though it could have been worse.
The Reds left seven runners on with Locke on the mound. Scahill wasn't much better but Pittsburgh's bullpen managed to slog the rest of the way, retiring the final six batters on strikeouts to win their seventh straight home game.
Pittsburgh leftfielder Starling Marte made a pair of spectacular diving grabs, stretching out to take a hit away from Billy Hamilton in the fifth and again to end seventh when he plucked Todd Frazier's liner off the ground that kept Hamilton from trotting home with the tying run.
''I had my hands up in the air like 'game saver,' a game changer right there,'' McCutchen said.
Reds: Price said Cueto - who is 18-4 with a 2.13 ERA against the Pirates - could have pitched but the team felt its ace would benefit from a few extra days off to give right elbow a little more time to rest. ''He's not feeling like he has his maximum amount of strength, so we're just trying to build that up right now,'' Price said. ''It just makes sense for us right now.'' Cueto's next scheduled start is Friday against the New York Mets.
Pirates: Top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon is out indefinitely with what general manager Neal Huntington described as lower abdominal discomfort. Taillon, the team's top pick in the 2010 first-year player draft, is recovering from Tommy John surgery in his right elbow. He was scheduled to start in the Gulf Coast League on Tuesday.
The series continues on Wednesday when Cincinnati's Mike Leake (4-4, 4.01 ERA) faces Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole (11-2, 1.78 ERA). Cole leads the majors in victories and has won each of his last six starts but is 0-2 with a 4.70 ERA in four career starts against the Reds, including a 3-0 loss to Leake on May 6.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Kessel worth Penguins' inquiry

Monday, June 22, 2015, 10:33 p.m.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck at his feet against Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs at Consol Energy Center on December 8, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)

Set aside the obvious impediments, for just a moment, and acknowledge an obvious truth: Phil Kessel on the Penguins would be an unbelievable spectacle. In a good way.
Get this man out of Toronto, put him next to Sidney Crosby, and your popcorn machine would never sleep.
The Penguins desperately need speed and scoring, right? Kessel would provide both in spades. He's easily the most desirable name among the trade targets linked to this team. The man has 275 points over the past four seasons (six fewer than Alex Ovechkin). He's still only 27.
So the question isn't whether the Penguins have a good chance to land Kessel in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. They probably don't, for reasons we'll discuss. The question is whether they should thoroughly explore the idea, in spite of myriad road blocks, and keep an open mind.
The answer is a resounding yes.
Kessel, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie, has Pittsburgh among the eight landing spots he would accept in a trade. The others are Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Montreal and the New York Rangers.
That could change. Kessel could add new teams before July 1. The Leafs could ask him to amend the list. But it's no surprise the Penguins would be on it. For all their issues, they remain a desirable spot for a talented offensive player who wants to win.
Now the road blocks:
• What would the Penguins be willing to give up (always such an inconvenient question in these scenarios)?
• Kessel has an $8 million annual cap hit that runs through 2021-22, a serious impediment for a team carrying hits of $9.25 million (Malkin), $8.7 million (Crosby) and $7.25 million (Kris Letang) that run just as long.
• Kessel's reputation.
Let's address these in reverse order, and let's get right to the point: Kessel carries the rap of an often-apathetic, out-of-shape enigma who makes life hard on coaches (a coach Phil-ler, you might say).
Fair or not, that reputation could work to the Penguins' advantage, as it might scare off suitors from an already limited list.
The Penguins can't afford to be too picky. When you're constantly searching for wingers, these are the chances you take. Especially on proven high-end talent.
The Penguins would have to bet on themselves and their captain, Crosby, providing a stable situation for Kessel, who undoubtedly would love to get away from Toronto's insane media glare.
I know this: The last time we saw Kessel playing high-stakes hockey, he was torching the Bruins for four goals in seven games. I know he has 13 goals in 22 career playoff games, too.
The contract is a major issue. But if the Leafs, now under the stewardship of Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock, really want to get rid of Kessel and don't find somebody they can fleece, they might have to adjust. That could mean eating part Kessel's contract (doubtful) or taking on an onerous contract from another team (Chris Kunitz or Rob Scuderi, Mr. Shanahan?).
Meanwhile, the Penguins have only one pick in the first four rounds this weekend and aren't in position to give up on what little elite young talent they possess. If I'm another team, I've got my eyes on Derrick Pouliot or Olli Maatta. The Penguins need both of them. Their best hope is that Toronto simply wants to shed Kessel's salary, get a decent return and get him out of their locker room.
It's possible. It's also conceivable that Brandon Sutter, some future picks and a young defenseman could be involved in a deal like that. Or maybe Babcock will want the challenge of coaching Kessel. Maybe the Leafs will simply wait, choosing not to sell low.
All things are possible in what promises to be a crazy NHL week. The Penguins will have their eyes wide open, likely gazing at the likes of Alex Semin, Patrick Sharp, T.J. Oshie and who knows who else?
I don't.
But I know this: If Phil Kessel becomes a realistic option, the Penguins would be crazy to look away.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Cam Heyward stepping into leadership role with Steelers

By Will Graves
June 18, 2015

Cam Heyward stepping into leadership role with Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) yells to teammates as they warm up during NFL football minicamp, Thursday, June 18, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The ball slammed to the ground to end a spirited Pittsburgh Steelers minicamp and Cameron Heyward sprang to his feet.
It wasn't just the joy of reaching the end of four sometimes tedious weeks of organized team activities. The Steelers defensive end actually kind of enjoys the deep dive into football minutiae and wasn't even on the field Thursday for the last play before training camp begins July 25.
Heyward still took a gleeful victory lap, making sure the guys in gold jerseys knew they had done their jobs.
For a defense in the final stages of a makeover following the departure of longtime fixtures Troy PolamaluIke TaylorBrett Keisel and Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Heyward represents the leading edge of the next wave. And he knows it.
The quiet, almost painfully demure rookie in 2011 has evolved into one of the new leaders of a youth movement that started in earnest when he was drafted. Heyward is eager for the responsibility.
''Most of these guys have their heads on right,'' Heyward said. ''It's just helping them understand the game is quicker in certain situations, help them be ready for certain moments.''
It's the least Heyward can do. He spent the first years of his career the willing apprentice to players like Keisel and Aaron Smith. Now that they're gone, Heyward is the one dishing out advice and setting the tone everywhere from meeting rooms to the huddle.
''He definitely is next in line,'' said second-year end Stephon Tuitt. ''We all look up to him to become better.''
Heyward had the luxury of biding his time before being tasked with making an impact. He didn't become a regular until his third year in 2013. By last fall, Heyward was one of the few consistent bright spots on a defense that struggled to make the splash plays head coach Mike Tomlin covets. Heyward set a career high and tied for the team lead with 7 1/2 sacks and new defensive coordinator Keith Butler believes more success is coming. It's why Butler is working on schemes that would give Heyward and Tuitt more freedom to just go get the ball rather than force him to eat up blockers so Heyward's teammates can run loose.
''We have to let them play football too,'' Butler said.
The message makes sense to Heyward.
''There's no thinking about letting the play get past you,'' Heyward said. ''It's 'Let's not let it get to that level.' I think it's a level of confidence and level of assertiveness that we need to have.''
One the Steelers have lacked over the last few seasons as Pittsburgh's sacks and turnovers created went down and its yards allowed went up. Way up. By Heyward's math, the Steelers need to create three sacks a game to become one of the league's best pass rushing teams, a number the team reached consistently when it went to three Super Bowls in six seasons between 2005-2010.
''When we were leading, we were high 40s, low 50s (on the season),'' Heyward said.
Heyward said he doesn't care how many of those sacks he personally tallies.
''If I can become a double-digit sack guy or just take up a lot of attention so other guys get pressure, that's fine,'' he said. ''The front seven has to dominate and we all have to be a part of it. We have to be interchangeable.''
Maybe, though Heyward is more invaluable than interchangeable. The 26-year-old is the longest-tenured defensive end on the team. He's also entering the option year of his rookie contract. While Heyward isn't getting ahead of himself given the always uncertain nature of the league, few teams hold onto their own like the Steelers. That's fine by Heyward, whose father Craig was a star running back in college at Pitt in the 1980s before a lengthy NFL career of his own.
Craig Heyward bounced around the league. His son has no such plans.
While some of his other teammates just rent home in Pittsburgh and live elsewhere, Heyward bought a house in the suburbs early in his career. Don't expect to see a ''For Sale'' sign up anytime soon, not with a defense to help rebuild and a Super Bowl to go chase.
''Obviously I have family connections and I would love to be here,'' Heyward said. ''But I can't control that. All I can do is go play.''
AP NFL website: and