Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Liriano has been model of consistency since coming to Pittsburgh

Francisco Liriano doesn’t play to stereotypes.
The Pirates left-hander doesn’t have the eccentricities associated with southpaws. He doesn’t display the flamboyance of most of his fellow Dominican pitchers.
Liriano never changes his facial expression or demeanor during his outings.
Once the game is over, it is hard to tell whether he won or lost when he meets with the media. He keeps his answers close to the vest, giving a measured response to every question, usually with some variation of “makes my pitches” theme.
However, the biggest label of all that Liriano hasn’t lived up to since joining the Pirates prior to the 2013 is underachiever, the reputation he developed over his eight seasons with the Minnesota Twins.
After going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA as a rookie in 2006, he embarked on a career path in which he was good enough to throw a no-hitter yet bad enough to be banished to the bullpen — in the same season.
However, thanks to relatively good health and the tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage, Liriano has been a model of consistency since coming to the Pirates.
He has gone 24-19 with a 3.15 ERA in 59 starts, allowing four earned runs or more just five times and two earned runs or less in 37 outings.
In four starts this season, he is 1-1 with a 2.22 ERA while striking out 30 in 24 1-3 innings.
Liriano has made 11 starts since last Aug. 25 and compiled a 1.57 ERA, which is the best among major league starters who have pitched at least 60 innings in that span.
The least impressed person in baseball about that run, though, is Liriano.
“I never think about that,” he said of statistics. “I just try to get myself ready for the next start and try to do the same thing every start and move forward and not think about any numbers.”
That attitude is also why Liriano is not bummed out about his record being just 5-1 in those starts because he did not figure in the decision in five of them.
“What matters in the end is if we get the win,” Liriano said. “It doesn’t matter if I get the win. It’s that we get the win as a team.”
The Pirates, not coincidentally, have been winning ever since Liriano came to town.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Pirates complete 1st desert sweep with 8-0 win over D-backs

By John Marshall
April 26, 2015
Pirates complete 1st desert sweep with 8-0 win over D-backs
Pittsburgh Pirates' Francisco Liriano throws a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, April 26, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) -- Pittsburgh's slow start to the season is quickly fading into the rearview mirror.

Pitching Details

The Pirates can thank their starting pitchers for the turnaround.
Francisco Liriano pitched effectively into the seventh inning in a combined three-hitter and the Pittsburgh Pirates completed their first sweep in Arizona with an 8-0 win over the Diamondbacks on Sunday.
''We're playing better baseball and it continues to start with our mound work,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett got the Pirates rolling in the series with quality starts the first two games.
Liriano (1-1) had trouble with fastball command in his 200th career start and walked six. He offset the walks with seven strikeouts and allowed two hits in 6 1-3 innings, giving him wins against 29 of the 30 teams in the majors.
The Pirates gave him some rare support, too.
Pedro Alvarez hit a two-run single off Jeremy Hellickson (1-3) in the first inning and Neil Walkeradded a two-run double off the right-hander in the fifth. Gregory Polanco had three of Pittsburgh's 14 hits and scored three runs. Walker also had three hits, finishing the series 7 for 12.
Pittsburgh has won five straight and eight of 10.
''We're in a good place right now,'' said Liriano, who has never faced Miami. ''We keep playing hard, taking it one game at a time, and pretty comfortable right now.''
Liriano has been sharp dating to the end of last season, allowing three earned runs or less in 10 straight starts.
He hasn't had much luck turning those quality starts into wins this season, though, losing to Detroit on April 15 after the Pirates were shut out and getting two no-decisions.
The left-hander had another good outing, keeping Arizona's hitters off-balance with his slow breaking balls.
Liriano was lifted after walking two with one out in the seventh. Jared Hughes ended the threat with a quick inning-ending double play.
''We knew we had to get the ball up and we kept swing at balls in the dirt,'' Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale said of facing Liriano.'' Execution. You can have the best game plan in the world, if you cannot execute it, you are not going to do well.''
The Pirates gave him a cushion right out of the gate against Hellickson.
The Arizona right-hander has struggled in the first inning this season, allowing four of his nine runs heading into Sunday's game in the opening frame.
The right-hander stumbled through the first again, loading the bases with the first three batters he faced to set up Alvarez's two-run single.
Hellickson ran into trouble again in the fifth inning, when Walker hit a two-run double to put the Pirates up 4-0, giving Pittsburgh eight straight runs with two outs to start the series.
Hellickson allowed four runs on seven hits and struck out six in 4 2-3 innings to end Arizona's run of quality starts at nine straight games.
''You never want to fall behind anybody,'' Hellickson said. ''It's a good lineup. I've just got to be better.''
The Pirates had a new player in uniform for Sunday's game: Sean Harrison.
OK, maybe he's not new.
It was actually Josh Harrison, but the Diamondbacks' public address announcer called him Sean - or Shawn or Shaun - as he came to the plate for his first two at-bats.
The game had a rare occurrence starting in the eighth inning: rain at Chase Field.
Despite the threat of afternoon storms, the Diamondbacks chose to leave the stadium roof open. The weather stayed nice until the bottom of the eighth inning, when rain started falling and fans headed for shelter.
The rain didn't let up, so the Diamondbacks began closing the roof in the ninth inning as some fans booed. The slow-moving roof finished closing with one out in the top half of the inning.
The last time the roof was both open and closed for a game was two games last May, when it started closed and opened later.
Pirates: RHP Vance Worley is 3-0 with a 1.97 ERA in five career starts against Chicago as he heads into Monday's game against the Cubs.
Diamondbacks: RHP Chase Anderson, who will start the opener of a three-game home series against Colorado on Monday, has thrown at least five innings in his first 14 home starts, a team record.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Starling Marte follows through on a three-run home run off Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Kyle Lohse in the fifth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, April 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) 
As recently as 24 months ago, it was still both novel and somewhat cute to see the Pittsburgh Pirates winning baseball games. This was a team that, in the final weeks of the 2013 season,actually breathed a visible sigh of relief after winning their 82nd game, which ensured their first winning season since spindly Barry Bonds wore the black n' gold in 1992. This, even though the team was cruising at 81-61 entering said game. Those Pirates were a very good team that would go on to win 94 games, but there was still a fear, deep-seated and affirmed annually, that a season-closing 20-game losing streak somehow lurked under the bed.
There's nothing cute about the Pirates winning games anymore. It's what this team was built to do—this seems like a cliche, but try and figure out what this Pirates team, for instance, was built to do—and they do it. This season is young and things happen, but the Pirates have been one of baseball's best teams since recording that 82nd win. By making the playoffs in the fall of both 2013 and 2014, the Pirates join the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A's, and St. Louis Cardinals—serious ballclubs, all—as the only teams in baseball with active streaks of playoff-making.
The main difference between the Pirates and a team like the monolithic Dodgers or the aggressively wholesome Cardinals is that, if you don't already have your allegiances established, you can feel pretty wonderful about following the Pirates as an unabashed, enthused bandwagoner. Actually: even if your major league allegiances are already established, odds are that what's going on in Pittsburgh is a hell of a lot cooler than what your local squad is futzing around with, and the Pirates hereby represent only temptation for your monogamous fan-heart. At the very least, the Pirates have a great case to be every baseball fan's second-favorite team.
What makes the Pirates wonderful is that, while they've been assembled by the most progressive of analytic minds, the players they've assembled play baseball like it's a party. To be sure, the Athletics have definitely been a party more years than not, but the A's flaunt their relative poverty, pre-gaming with Red Bull and letting the toilet flood the place. The Pirates' payroll is only $4M larger than Oakland's this year—call it a rounding error, or Antonio Bastardo And Change—but they have avoided a thrifty reputation despite pinching pennies as hard as any team in the sport.
More than that, the Pirates don't feel cheap. The Pirates' main attraction, stylistically speaking, is their outfield, which is a trio of superstars and superstars-in-development of such tantalizingly great skill that no fanbase could be greedy enough to realistically expect. The wild card, for now, is prospect of great import Gregory Polanco. Polanco has stoically hit his way to something like replacement level in his first hundred career games as a big leaguer, but he is just 23 years old and expected to be the present day weak link. (In the future, he is expected to be a regular 20/20 threat.) Most days, the other corner is manned by Starling Marte, wholaunched a home run on the first major league pitch he saw and has not quit since with the manic slugging and the uncanny, acrobatic fielding.
For just about any other franchise, the fanbase would call it a blessing to receive a gift as blissfully entertaining as Marte, and cheerfully tab him the face of the franchise. But the Pirates already have a face of the franchise, and he is in fact as many degrees better than Marte is as Marte is better than your average left fielder. Andrew McCutchen is flying, rapidly, towards having his bronzed bust in the Hall of Fame, and he has only made it look like the easiest, most graceful, obvious thing in the world to do. I have myself sat in the bleachers, transfixed, just watching the man warm up, and enjoyed it more than many actual games. McCutchen is clearly a man who moves not just through the baseball field but through the entire world with uncommon smoothness. Like Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone toiling in Michael Jordan's shadow, it feels true that McCutchen would be recognized as a generation's best player if only his generation did not include one Mike Trout.
An outfield, even one as gobsmackingly credentialed as this one, doesn't make a team go by itself. Most everybody else on the PIrates roster was once cast aside, traded for spare parts, and then lovingly coached into previously unfathomable potential. This includes the soft, quiet Radhames Liz, who is getting his first outs now as a member of the Pirates' bullpen after not appearing in the majors since 2009. This includes the saintly Francisco Cervelli, who dons the catcher's blue collar with the utmost enthusiasm. It includes A.J. Burnett, who would retire rather than pitch anywhere else.
More than anybody, it includes Josh Harrison, who came to the Pirates in a 2009 trade that sent, among others, Tom Gorzelanny to the Chicago Cubs. Last year, Harrison made the quantum leap from serviceable utility player—return enough for Gorzelanny—to dark horse MVP candidate, making a habit of wriggling out of pickles along the way.
We're coolly acclimated to projection systems now, expecting if not betting on today's quick bloomer to wither tomorrow. Harrison, gloriously, is having none of it. As he said to Bill West of the Pittsburgh Tribune: "Regression, succession, whatever—let them speak, that's what they talk about, because that's all they can talk about. I feel like this is only the beginning."
This might sound like a refutation of the Pirates' data-driven ways of doing business, but really it's not. Let them speak, Harrison says—those voices from outside the Pirates organization, the only organization savvy enough to guide Harrison into being all he could be. It's a confident way to think and a fairly bold thing to say, and it suits the Pirates fine.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Crosby, Malkin didn't sign on for this

Friday, April 24, 2015, 11:31 p.m.

Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is checked by Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers during the first period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) 

NEW YORK — Promises get broken.

So do hockey franchises.

When those happenings coincide, something has to change.

So even though the Penguins don't want to end the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era, I'm not sure they're going to have a choice in the matter.

It's not that the franchise centers are unhappy. (They are, but they've been that way since last summer). They've lost faith in the direction of the franchise. And I'm not sure what can be said — especially to Malkin — to make things right.

Something has to be done in the wake of the Penguins' 2-1 series-ending overtime loss to the New York Rangers in Game 5 on Friday at Madison Square Garden that eliminated them from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Otherwise, the Penguins might have to sell another early playoff exit and a trade they'd rather not make.

Co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux could have a lot more to consider than whether to let pride — or stubbornness — get in the way of doing what's best for business. They must hire a new general manager, one who understands the NHL's not-so-new salary-cap dynamic, a hockey boss with autonomy to make hockey moves.

Because this isn't what Crosby and Malkin signed on for when each agreed to a second long-term contract at below market-value salary.

The Penguins are unrecognizable. They've gone from the marquee to the second stage. Or, put in hockey terms, from Stanley Cup contender to playoff pretender.

Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins watches as a shot goes wide on Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers during the first period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 24, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Injuries didn't help, but this season was far from sabotaged by them. Rather it was a last gasp from a franchise that once promoted its new arena as destiny's new home.

From within, the home appears to be crumbling. The organization has degenerated into a toxic mix of a dysfunctional hockey operations department and a business side too occupied with selling youth hockey than winning and scoring.

Winning and scoring is what Crosby and Malkin were sold, too.

This season, the winning and scoring dipped. By no coincidence, so did the TV ratings, interest in playoff tickets and the confidence of Crosby and Malkin.

Bad luck ruined the Penguins' best-laid plans for the prime years of Crosby and Malkin. And certainly neither Crosby nor Malkin has done enough over the past six postseasons to bring back the Cup. But they're not the problem.

Actually, they've masked a lot of organizational problems, including but not limited to an aging roster, infatuation with puck-moving defensemen, the win-now (at the expense of draft picks) approach and the equally inexcusable and embarrassing failure to find wingers for two future Hall of Fame centers.

Do you know who shouldn't be playing with better wingers than Crosby and Malkin? Connor McDavid. But he will with Edmonton next season.

Blame Ray Shero or Jim Rutherford. Both GMs blew it when it came to Crosby and Malkin. Two years ago, Crosby and Malkin played with their least-talented supporting cast … until this past year, when it was worse.

Most depressing is the bleak future.

The Penguins won't escape salary-cap purgatory because so much of their payroll is tied into too few players, several of whom are well past their primes and provide little trade value. The biggest problem area (forwards) is also the weakest part of the prospect system. And there aren't enough draft picks because of foolish trades.

This is a mess, and Crosby and Malkin aren't two of the world's greatest cleaners.

They are two of the world's greatest hockey players, and they've always taken less money to give the Penguins a chance to win.

They were promised far better than their bosses have delivered.

Lemieux, of all people, should know what broken promises from ownership can do to hockey superstars.

They can make the superstars want to leave.

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

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Tracing the Penguins' demise

Thursday, April 23, 2015, 10:48 p.m.

Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Penguins players Marc-Andre Fleury (from left), Paul Martin, and Ben Lovejoy are all tangled up with each other against the Rangers during Game 4 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Consol Energy Center Wednesday, April 22, 2015. The Rangers won 2-1 to gain a 3-1 advantage.

Gentlemen, start your golf carts.

The Penguins are a loss away from a sixth consecutive early postseason exit. How did they find themselves in such a deep hole a mere week into the playoffs?
The top five reasons, in order:
Doesn't make for incendiary sports talk. It's just true. And it's amazing to watch otherwise rational human beings demand the beheadings of everyone in charge when the clear and simple truth is that the Penguins are ravaged beyond recognition.
That doesn't excuse other pertinent issues. But to willfully ignore injuries as the primary one is insane.
Humor me here. Put down the pitchfork, take a deep breath and at least appraise the injury situation for what it is. Just for a moment.
The Penguins are missing a productive, lightning-fast, top-line team leader in Pascal Dupuis. That alone rips a giant hole in the roster. But that's only the beginning. They also are without a game-changing, Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman in Kris Letang. A guy who'd be playing HALF THE GAME if he were in the lineup.
Oh, and they are sans a rising star in Olli Maatta and a solid top-4 D-man in Christian Ehrhoff. I keep hearing Ehrhoff was an unnecessary signing. He sure looked necessary when he was averaging 21 minutes with a plus-15 rating through three months. Before a brain injury ruined his season.
How many teams overcome that kind of roster devastation?
The truth can be terribly inconvenient, I know, especially when an angry mob is forming at the center of town. But that doesn't make it any less true.
Last year, it was Geno up and Sid down. This year, it's the opposite. No other team in this salary-cap era pays its top two players as much. That makes filling adequately around them a near-impossible task. It means the two must be dominant if the Penguins are to have any chance of a lengthy postseason run.
Crosby has been very good in this series. Malkin has been invisible. If his back is as bad as some believe, it seems curious that he has continued to practice regularly. And maybe it's unfair to compare anyone to Mario Lemieux, but even on nights when Lemieux's back was so bad he needed help lacing his skates, he found ways to make key plays.
On the other hand, if Malkin really is that banged up, add him as another crucial piece of testimony to Category 1 above.
I defended Jim Rutherford regularly through the season but also said he could only fairly be judged on how his acquisitions performed in the playoffs.
Some have looked good (Patric Hornqvist, Max Lapierre), others awful (David Perron and Daniel Winnik, a human clinic on how to get scored against at even strength). The rest of the bag is mixed.
Where I once would have given Rutherford an ‘A' for his work, I'd now give him a ‘C.' I was dead wrong on the Ben Lovejoy-Simon Despres trade. It looks hideous. Ian Cole for Robert Bortuzzo on the other hand ...
Rutherford also lost his bet that yet another injury outbreak wouldn't leave him short-handed toward the end of the season. It did. He refused to own it.
Would the mistakes be enough to fire him? Not for me, because, again, Rutherford doesn't have anything resembling the team he was supposed to have.
I applauded Shero's ownership-mandated, win-now approach, and he did draft some talented young defensemen. But somehow, some way, somewhere, in eight years, you have to come up with a forward or three who can help.
A team such as the Penguins, topped with rare skill, is hurt more than others by the return of maim-and-mug hockey.
This team still has a chance, mind you. It could still make its GM look good.
But if I'm a betting man, I'm betting the only Penguins-related noise we hear this weekend is the vroom-vroom-vroom of golf carts.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

This type of hockey is a serious problem

Wednesday, April 22, 2015, 11:27 p.m.
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates alongside Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 20, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

We've seen a lot of playoff hockey in these parts during the Sidney Crosby era.

What we're watching right now is barely hockey at all.

It sure isn't what the sport should look like. And it definitely isn't worth the price of admission.

The 377th consecutive sellout crowd to watch a Penguins home game was awesome Wednesday night. A constant buzz of noise — not to mention a mix of cheering, chanting and jeering — turned Consol Energy Center into the Stanley Cup Final version of the old Civic Arena.

The House Sid Got Built rocked like the Igloo while the Penguins essentially fought for any realistic chance to upset the top-seeded New York Rangers.

And like every game in this series, which the Rangers lead 3-1, Game 4 was close, creating the sense of tension that is unique to the emotional pendulum that is the chase for Lord Stanley's silver chalice.

But Lord Stanley liked hockey.

So I'm guessing he would hate what the quest for his Cup has become.

It's not hockey. It's a joke.

I could not care less if playoff teams have been within a goal of one another almost 80 percent of the time during the postseason. The closeness of contests is not all that I like to write about hockey, and I'm guessing it's not the only reason anybody likes to watch hockey.

The best teams make the playoffs, so the games should be close.

They shouldn't be boring.

This first-round series between the Penguins and Rangers has been boring and ugly and only watchable if you own a vested interest — and, really, even then it has required effort.

Playoff hockey needn't be high scoring. Heck, the two best hockey games I've covered finished with scores of 2-1.
But I dare suggest tape-to-tape passes aren't too much to ask. I'm not sure I've seen more than a dozen through four games between the Penguins and Rangers, and these teams don't exactly lack skill.

Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Martin St. Louis have won two scoring titles each. Rick Nash is one of the premier power forwards of this generation. Paul Martin can move the puck with anybody. So can Keith Yandle.

I'm talking about supremely skilled hockey players, but all I'm doing is talking about them because their skill is not allowed to show.

The Rangers went deep into the opening period of Game 4 without registering a shot, as if it wasn't hard enough watching the Penguins do almost the same thing in Game 3. In the second period of both games, the teams treated the puck as though it were a grenade.

The block-first mentality has ruined offensive hockey. So have the defensive tendencies of even the most offensive-minded coaches.

Mike Johnston has transformed the Penguins into a chip-and-chase group of muckers. It's like he doesn't know he works for the most gifted player in the history of hockey.

With due respect to commissioner Gary Bettman, who attended Game 4, the officials aren't helping, either.
Bettman told the Trib's Jason Mackey “the standard (for officiating) has not been abandoned.”

It should be because the standard was unacceptable all season.

I don't believe referees are screwing the Penguins on calls, but it's clear there is enough obstruction in this series to make a fan hunger for the comparatively freewheeling late 1990s.

You know, back when nobody could get into the offensive zone.

Neither the Penguins nor Rangers have averaged 30 shots through four games. They've combined for 97 in the past 123 minutes of what I guess can be called action.

Look, the NHL has a history of allowing itself to become too defensive, and then the league fixes the problem.
But somebody needs to acknowledge there is a problem.

So I've got a solution for a man who I genuinely believe is the best commissioner in all of sports. This offseason, take the rule-making powers away from general managers whose jobs are always on the line.

Give that power to the owners, Mr. Bettman.

Because they're the ones asking customers to pay for a product that isn't any good — even in the playoffs.

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

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