Monday, August 29, 2016

Not gonna bet against Cullen this time

By Brian Metzer
August 29, 2016
Image result for matt cullen penguins
No one remembers when you’re right about something, but make a mistake or a bad read and everyone is talking about it in perpetuity. That is especially true when you give a definitive opinion about a signing made by the local NHL team that is completely off-base.
That is exactly what this writer did last August – Aug. 6, 2015 to be exact – when the Penguins signed 38-year-old center Matt Cullen to a one-year, $800,000 dollar contract to slot in on their fourth line.
The move just didn’t seem to make sense.
Jim Rutherford had recently completed a trade with the Vancouver Canucks to acquire Nick Bonino while signing Eric Fehr to a three-year contract at the same time. Both players are centers and seemed destined to slot in behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the third and fourth lines respectively. Fehr was going to miss the beginning of the season following off-season surgery, but the team had highly-touted prospect Oskar Sundqvist waiting in the wings.
To bring in Cullen meant stunting Sundqvist’s growth and making the team older and less likely to go further in the playoffs than they did the previous spring, being eliminated by the New York Rangers in five games in the first round.
Boy was I wrong.
Cullen ended up being one of the best off-season signings in the entire league. He contributed 16 goals and 16 assists, became one of the most reliable faceoff men on the Penguins roster and showed a chameleon-like ability to blend in wherever he was needed in the lineup.
He was the fourth line center. He spent time playing on the wing with both Crosby and Malkin and proved to be a valuable penalty killer.
He was the kind of player that the Penguins had been looking for over the course of seven long years since they’d last won the Stanley Cup. He was downright Bill Guerin-esque, which speaks to his ability to harness what  Guerin brought to the 2009 Stanley Cup-winning club after his trade deadline arrival.
He did it on the ice, but his biggest contribution might have come off of it.
Cullen was instrumental in the development of both Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, mid-season call-ups that helped the Penguins win their fourth championship. Each player credited Cullen with their ability to deal with the pressure and to play in any capacity in which they were needed.
Rust specifically raved about his time playing on Cullen’s wing during a stretch of March games which helped him deal with all that came his way while playing with Malkin during the playoffs.
There were multiple times during the regular season that Cullen could be seen working with players between practice drills, sometimes after practice. In the case of now-departed winger Sergei Plotnikov, he took time to diagram situations on a dry erase board to help alleviate the language barrier between the two when they were paired by former coach Mike Johnston.
It’s no coincidence that Plotnikov’s most impressive stretch of hockey came during that time playing with Cullen.
Cullen will turn 40 on Nov. 2, but that number isn’t as important as his 1,294 NHL games, two Stanley Cups and ability to function as an extension of the coaching staff. He commands his teammates respect and has the ear of the captain, his alternates and everyone in the dressing room.
All of the things outlined earlier are what pushed the Penguins to put his name on a new one-year contract last week, while the league was consumed with #VeseyWatch. Those reasons and the fact that he played a key role in helping get them get back to the top of the mountain and in possession of Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The graybeard contributed four goals and six points and was on the ice in most high profile defensive situations during all 24 postseason games and the Penguins are hoping he’ll help them play well into June again this season.
There is no second guessing this time, as Cullen makes it 19 of 20 Penguins players who were on the ice for the Cup-clinching game in San Jose returning to Pittsburgh this season. His signing, along with most of the club returning, gives the Penguins the best chance at repeating in recent NHL history.
Somehow it feels like with Cullen in the fold, that just might happen.

Pirates win 8th straight on road, sweep Brewers 3-1

By Colin Fly, Associated Press
August 28, 2016
Pittsburgh Pirates' Starling Marte watches after hitting a solo home run against Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Carlos Torres during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016, in Milwaukee.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Starling Marte watches after hitting a solo home run against Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Carlos Torres during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016, in Milwaukee. (Benny Sieu/AP Photo)

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MILWAUKEE -- The Pittsburgh Pirates are red hot heading to Chicago. But their postseason aspirations could hinge on medical examinations off the field over the coming days.
Ivan Nova threw six sharp innings before leaving early because of a hurting left hamstring and the Pirates hit three solo homers to rally past the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 on Sunday for their eighth straight road victory.
"We're going to leave here in a good place but we've got to show up in Chicago," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I don't think you could ask for much more here at the end of August. We get to play meaningful games. It should be fun."
Pittsburgh is in the thick of the NL Wild Card race, but Nova's injury is the latest issue in a road that gets much tougher for the Pirates.
"I was trying not to think about it," said Nova, who was pulled as a precaution. "It was my first time experiencing something like that. I decided to tell the manager."
Ace Gerrit Cole will not start Monday, instead heading to get an outside opinion on his ailing right elbow and missing at least one scheduled start.
"We will talk more about Gerrit and his situation when he comes back from the doctor," general manager Neal Huntington said.
John Jaso and Gregory Polanco each homered in the sixth off Brewers starter Chase Anderson (7-11) to complete Pittsburgh's first sweep at Miller Park since 2004. Starling Marte added a solo shot in the eighth.
Nova (4-0) retired 10 of his final 11 batters after allowing Jonathan Villar's solo homer in the third. He scattered three hits and struck out four before being pinch hit for in the seventh. Tony Watson converted his 10th save in 13 opportunities.
Nova is pitching like a staff ace so far in Pittsburgh before he hits free agency this winter. He's struck out 22 and walked just four in 31 1/3 innings with a 2.87 ERA over his first five starts since being acquired at the trade deadline from the Yankees.
"It'd be pretty silly for the manager to push him out there for one more inning and he blows his hamstring," Hurdle said. "We were very pleased with that effort."
Anderson again failed to get out of the sixth inning for Milwaukee -- for the 11th time in his last 12 starts.
He worked his way out of a bases loaded jam with one out in the fourth, but grooved a pair of pitches in the sixth and was pulled after Polanco's shot put Pittsburgh ahead for good.
"The command was there for me today for the most part, just got away from me in the sixth inning," Anderson said.
Pirates 3B Adam Frazier was optioned to Single-A Bristol before the game and RHP A.J. Schugel was recalled. Frazier started at third base in Saturday's 9-6 win.
Pirates: With Cole out, Hurdle says his rotation plan in Chicago will be Steven Brault on Monday followed by Chad Kuhl and Ryan Vogelsong.
Brewers: Brewers RHP Junior Guerra (right elbow) is expected to return to the rotation at some point after Thursday's day off. He threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings in his previous rehab start at Triple-A Colorado Springs.
Pirates: Brault (0-1, 3.60 ERA) will be recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis. The left-hander will make his third career start.
Brewers: Zach Davies (10-6, 4.06) takes the hill in the opener of a series against St. Louis.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Polanco's Pinch-hit Double Pushes Bucs Past Brewers

By Rich Rovito, Associated Press
August 27, 2016

Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco watches his three-run double during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, in Milwaukee.

Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco watches his three-run double during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, in Milwaukee. (Benny Sieu/AP Photo)

MILWAUKEE -- The Pittsburgh Pirates are starting to get comfortable at Miller Park.
Pinch-hitter Gregory Polanco had a tiebreaking three-run double as the Pirates rallied from four runs down to beat the Brewers 9-6 Saturday night, giving Pittsburgh three straight wins in Milwaukee for the first time since 2013.
Pittsburgh still is just 20-64 at the Brewers' ballpark since 2007, but has a chance for a four-game sweep in the series finale on Sunday.
"I said before we left (for Milwaukee) that we were due," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's very refreshing to come here and do it the way that we did it tonight. We have a gritty team."
Polanco doubled off reliever Blaine Boyer (1-3) with one-out in the sixth, giving the Pirates a 9-6 lead that stood.
"I was trying to put a good swing on the ball," Polanco said. "We're fighting, every pitch."
Hernan Perez homered twice for Milwaukee, with a three-run homer during a four-run first, and a solo shot leading off the third that put the Brewers ahead 5-1. It marked the first time since June 24 that Pirates starter Jameson Taillonallowed more than three earned runs.
Taillon lasted just three innings, his shortest outing of the season after going at least six innings in each of his last eight starts. He gave up five runs and seven hits, while walking two and striking out three.
"Everything seemed to be up. It wasn't a sharp outing for him," Hurdle said. "He's been pretty sharp since he's been here and has picked us. Tonight the guys were able to pick him up."
Pittsburgh scored five runs in the fourth against Jimmy Nelson to take a 6-5 lead. Pinch-hitter John JasoJosh HarrisonJosh Bell and Andrew McCutchen all drove in runs in the inning to chase Nelson.
However, Brewers reliever Tyler Cravy -- who had replaced Nelson -- homered off Jeff Locke (9-7) to open the bottom of the inning for his first major league hit.
Neftali Feliz got the last three outs for his second save in four attempts. He retired Ryan Braun on an infield chopper with two on in the ninth. The call stood after a two-minute review.
Starling Marte had an RBI double in the first to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead.
The beach towels distributed to fans as they arrived at the ballpark came in handy during a third-inning downpour. The rain also prompted the closing of the retractable roof.
Pirates: General manager Neal Huntington said after the game that a second opinion would be sought on the ailing right elbow of pitcher Gerrit Cole. "He made us aware after his last start that he had a little bit of discomfort. He'll need a second opinion sometime in this coming week so he'll miss at least his next start. We expect Steven Brault to make the start in his place." ... Polanco didn't start in order to get rest. ... RHP Tyler Glasnow (shoulder), who threw three scoreless innings at Double-Altoona on Monday, tossed three more scoreless innings in a rehab start on Saturday for Triple-A Indianapolis.
Brewers: 3B Jonathan Villar was out of the starting lineup. Manager Craig Counsell said he made the move to give Villar a rest, not because he committed two errors in Friday night's game. ... RHP Junior Guerra, on the disabled list with right elbow inflammation, pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings in rehab start for Triple-A Colorado Springs Saturday at Oklahoma City. ... 3B Will Middlebrooks (right leg) started a rehab assignment at Double-A Biloxi on Saturday.
Pirates: Ivan Nova (3-0, 3.20 ERA) has wins in three of his first four starts with after being acquired from the New York Yankees on Aug. 1. Nova, who pitched a complete game in his last start against Houston on Tuesday, will make his first career start against Milwaukee.
Brewers: Chase Anderson (7-10, 4.99) is 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA over his last six starts. He is 1-1 with a 4.63 ERA in five career starts against the Pirates, including 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in two starts this season.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Steelers' offense sizzles against Saints in Ben Roethlisberger's debut

Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writer 27, 2016

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) works against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) works against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP Photo)

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NEW ORLEANS -- So that's what the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense looks like.
After weeks of injuries, a player suspension and spotty preseason football from the reserves, the Steelers walked their stars onto the Mercedes-Benz Superdome field and dissected the New Orleans Saints' defense as if it was routine, like lunch or a nap, in a 27-14 win on Friday night.
These were not routine numbers, preseason or not: 12-of-17, 148 yards, two touchdowns on two drives for Ben Roethlisberger in his first action of the preseason.
Roethlisberger connected with six different playmakers on his first eight completions, including a 5-yard score to Jesse James off a scramble to cap a smooth 15-play, 74-yard drive.
Nothing like the Saints' defense to boost morale -- Landry Jones tore it up, too, completing 12 of his first 15 passes for 116 yards and a score -- but the performance was impressive, and much needed.
The Steelers are at their best when in the no-huddle offense like on that first drive, Roethlisberger said. In that set, Roethlisberger calls plays from the line of scrimmage along with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
"I think our base offense is going to be uptempo," Roethlisberger said.
Le'Veon Bell was a tease, because he looked explosive coming off knee surgery, and now he's out until late September because of the three-game suspension for missed drug tests. His ability as a receiver (five catches, 37 yards) reminds that he can help offset the losses of tight end Ladarius Green (ankle) and Martavis Bryant (suspended). Save his second-quarter fumble on 3rd-and-18 -- and he rarely fumbles -- Bell looked excellent.
Bell, who split snaps with DeAngelo Williams and played well into the second half, said he felt he showed he was back.
"Get hit, get tackled, go to the ground a couple of times, shake the rust off a little bit -- it felt good," Bell said. "I definitely still felt a little rusty."
And don't sleep on this fact: Roethlisberger threw to new slot receiver Eli Rogerson four of his first 14 attempts. It's obvious that he trusts Rogers, who finished with two catches for 17 yards.
There were no questions that the Steelers would have a potent offense in 2016. But as Roethlisberger's 57-yard teardrop to Antonio Brown for a touchdown reminds, this group is good enough to thrive despite a few moving parts.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs against New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams (25) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs against New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams (25) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP Photo)

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QB depth chart: Roethlisberger left the game after two series and Jones deftly took over, hitting a streaking Markus Wheaton for a 36-yard play and finding Sammie Coates in the corner of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown. Coates and Jones connecting is a positive sign after they struggled to connect a week ago, resulting in two interceptions. Jones looked much improved playing alongside some of the starters, which is to be expected, but that doesn't erase the four interceptions from the previous week.
Maybe that dude could start: James looked right at home with the first-team offense, catching three passes for 23 yards and a score. James isn't a downfield burner, but he has sure hands and is a huge target at 6-foot-6. His run blocking appears adequate most of the time. If Green is out awhile, James showed Friday that he can at least keep the position afloat.
Who got hurt?: Defensive end Cam Heyward (ankle) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (elbow) both left the game and didn't return. Heyward was carted off, and Gilbert threw his helmet after his last play in the game. They are being evaluated. These are very important players whose injuries will be monitored closely. Safety Shamarko Thomas hurt his groin in the first quarter.
Surprise players who impressed: Reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo was around the ball on almost every down he played. Tight end Xavier Grimble showed up at a crucial time in the race for a roster spot. Linebacker L.J. Fort forced a fumble on a running play early in the fourth quarter.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Steelers looked ...: Mighty comfortable. While the offense ran through the Saints, the defense acquitted itself well by allowing one first down on the Saints' first two drives. The Saints drove downfield on the third, but by then Pittsburgh had worked multiple backups into the rotation. On the Saints' first team's only touchdown, the Steelers had Willie Snead triple covered and he made a ridiculous catch. Hard to argue with that.
One reason to be concerned: The No. 3 cornerback role remains unresolved. Rookie Sean Davis has played most of the slot cornerback snaps, and though he's up to the challenge, the team drafted him as a safety. First-rounder Artie Burns has been out most of the preseason with a quad injury. The Senquez Golson injury hurts more by the week. That's why I'm not writing off the team potentially signing free agent Keenan Lewis if his health gets right. Or the team can take a chance on Donald WashingtonMontell Garner or Doran Grant.
Do it Tuitt: Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was active early in the game, getting past the Saints' line of scrimmage multiple times. James Harrison also applied quarterback pressure.
Big shot: The Steelers signed linebacker Vince Williams to a three-year deal this week in part because he's a physical tackler. But Williams earned a 15-yard penalty for a helmet-to-helmet shot on running back Daniel Lasco. Williams and Fort both connected with Lasco, resulting in a fumble.

Jordy Mercer hits grand slam, Pirates hold off Brewers 5-3

By Genaro Armas, Associated Press
August 26, 2016
Pittsburgh Pirates' Jordy Mercer watches his grand slam against Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Matt Garza during the sixth inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in Milwaukee.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Jordy Mercer watches his grand slam against Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Matt Garza during the sixth inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in Milwaukee. (Benny Sieu/AP Photo)

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MILWAUKEE -- One big swing released a little frustration for Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer.
After an intentional walk loaded the bases for him with two outs in the sixth inning, Mercer hit his first career grand slam just over the wall in left-center to help the Pirates beat the Milwaukee Brewers 5-3 Friday night.
"Puts a little chip on your shoulder, for sure," Mercer said.
With runners on second and third with two outs, starter Matt Garza walkedFrancisco Cervelli to bring up the eighth-place hitter, Mercer.
Garza got ahead in the count 0-2. Then he hung a pitch over the plate.
"I floated a slider in there," he said.
He didn't get help from third baseman Jonathan Villar that inning. He committed errors on consecutive at-bats to open the sixth.
Villar bobbled a bouncer by Andrew McCutchen, then threw wildly to second after making a diving stab on Gregory Polanco's hard shot.
Starling Marte followed with an RBI double off Garza (4-6) to break a scoreless tie. Three batters later, Mercer connected.
"You take advantage of those opportunities," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "In the big leagues, if you want to be an elite team, those are opportunities you need to cash in on."
The Brewers rallied in the bottom of the sixth behind a three-run shot from rookie shortstop Orlando Arcia, his first in the big leagues.
Pittsburgh's problematic bullpen barely held on from there to back starter Ryan Vogelsong (3-3).
Domingo Santana popped out to end the game with the potential tying run at second.
Tony Watson escaped the jam for his ninth save. He had allowed a two-out single to Ryan Braun and a walk to Chris Carter, and they pulled off a double steal before getting stranded.
"The game boiled down to a couple of mistakes, a bad 0-2 pitch and that was the game," manager Craig Counsell said.
A pair of veteran right-handers, Vogelsong and Garza, kept the bats quiet over the first five innings.
Vogelsong won for the second time in three outings, allowing four hits in 5 2/3 innings while striking out six and walking four. He has a 2.48 ERA in five August starts.
"I've always been a guy that gets out of stuff, sometimes better than others," Vogelsong said. "Most of the time, get some traffic and make pitches and get out of it."
Garza struck out a season-high nine, but stomped off the mound after Mercer's two-out blast.
"That's a tough one to swallow for him over there," Hurdle said.
Villar was the Brewers' starting shortstop until a few weeks ago when top prospect Arcia was called up from the minors. Villar, who has 50 steals, is still working on the glove at third.
Arcia, known for his defensive prowess, got a huge confidence boost at the plate. He was hitting .182 coming into the night.
He pointed into the stands after crossing the plate. Somewhere in Miller Park, his sister and two friends were watching.
Arcia said teammate Martin Maldonado, who was on deck, told him to watch forJared Hughes to leave a sinker up in the zone.
Pirates: RHP Tyler Glasnow (shoulder) was scheduled to make his next rehab start on Saturday for Triple-A Indianapolis.
Brewers: RHP Junior Guerra (elbow) was scheduled to make on rehab start before returning to the team, likely when rosters expand on Sept. 1. Counsell said the team will likely move to a six-man rotation when Guerra returns. ... 3B Will Middlebrooks (right leg) will start a rehab assignment at Double-A Biloxi this week.
Pirates: RHP Jameson Taillon (3-3) has a 2.25 ERA over his last eight starts, going at least six innings in each game.
Brewers: RHP Jimmy Nelson (7-13) is 5-2 in seven career starts against the Pirates with a 2.55 ERA.
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