Thursday, May 31, 2007
By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"It was like a clean slate: Every Sunday, you erase. Come back every Monday and learn new stuff," says Najeh Davenport, seen here last season when he signed with the Steelers the day after the start of 2006 play.
The way Najeh Davenport measures it, a football player is only as fast as his field intelligence, his grasp of the game plan, his comprehension of the playbook.
And, man, he feels his brain synapse at 4.4, 4.5 speed nowadays.
It's a completely different Steelers state of mind from last fall.
"He had to learn everything on the run last year," new Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians recalled of the backup running back, who was signed the day after the team's 2006 season opener. "It was really game plan to game plan. Now he's learning the nuances of the offense."
"It was like a clean slate: Every Sunday, you erase. Come back every Monday and learn new stuff," said Davenport.
He laughed yesterday, amid the second week of organized team activity on the South Side, about his personal acuity change the past five months or so. "Now you don't have to think about stuff, go over plays in your head, go crazy with reads: the safety...," he continued. "You aren't thinking about it."
Suddenly, it's all reaction time.
Such as the 20-yard-plus romp down the left sideline toward the end of team drills yesterday. Davenport felt so good, so comfortable, that he quickly flashed his a straight arm toward the helmet of oncoming safety Anthony Smith as if to say: I got you now.
"I was just finishing off, showing him that I saw him and that was what he was going get," Davenport said with a grin. "I don't think he knew that I saw him. Sort of surprised him. Now he realizes."
It's the brand of Davenport moment that causes Arians to remark about the alteration, the assimilation, in the player who used to capably back up Ahman Green in Green Bay: "He looks explosive."
Before anyone prematurely closes the competition for The Next Jerome Bettis, that burly back to complement fast Willie Parker -- it is still May, after all -- Davenport merely presents an option that may be overlooked. He was a last-ditch pickup one game into the 2006 season, a longtime Packers backup coming off a broken ankle the October before and a newcomer to the Steelers' system. After all, as he put it, he spent so much time in the West Coast offense, he felt the protection scheme was something "you learned since you were knee-high." The Steelers' way, even down to their numbering system, was so foreign that this five-year veteran admittedly lost focus.
Perhaps that renders slightly even more remarkable the statistics he was able to compile as Parker's top backup, once Verron Haynes' season ended with a knee injury against Oakland. Davenport finished with 221 yards rushing on 60 carries for a 3.7-yard average. He amassed 15 catches for 193 yards and a 12.9-yard average that ranked behind Nate Washington (17.8), Santonio Holmes (16.8), Hines Ward (13.6) and Cedric Wilson (13.2) among regular Steelers receivers. Moreover, his receiving yardage was only 29 yards fewer than Parker, and on half as many catches. Finally, his 20 kickoff returns topped the team and his 430 return yards (for a 21.5-yard average) were only 6 fewer on two more returns than Holmes.
In short, he was productive while cramming for weekly quizzes last year. Imagine how he might perform understanding everything on the exam.
It's a constant study, too: "I'm definitely getting these OTAs in," Davenport said. This from a 6-foot-1, 247-pound worker who spent one offseason shedding 20 pounds via pickup basketball and Jenny Craig.
The arrival of veteran Kevan Barlow, the seven-year veteran from Pitt and Peabody signed as a free agent three weeks ago, merely means to Davenport more competition. Especially at a running back spot where the rehabilitating Haynes could be re-signed and return by next fall.
"I think the more the better," Davenport said. "We sit down and talk as running backs, and I tell them about when I was in college [at Miami]. We didn't have a lot of balls to go around, not even a lot of reps. I think in college, we'd have a two-hour practice, and I'd get maybe 15 reps the whole practice. We had guys like Edgerrin James, James Jackson, Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore. ... Everybody was trying to get snaps. So you got guys running scout offense. In my case, I played fullback to get on the field."
Return kicks. Catch swing passes from the backfield. Contribute, concentrate, comprehend. It's simplistic, but it's the same path Davenport followed to success in Green Bay, starting just two of 39 games -- rushing for 178 yards on 19 carries in a 2004 Monday night telecast against St. Louis, and scoring two touchdowns before breaking an ankle against New Orleans in 2005.
He started to show similar signs late last season, when he subbed for Parker and rushed on three consecutive plays for 27 yards against Cincinnati, when he scored on a first-quarter pass against Carolina, when he combined for 83 yards rushing and receiving against Cleveland. That was a marginally different offense, under a different head coach, with a radically scattered Steelers-system mind-set under Davenport's helmet.
Nowadays, he said, "you know what's coming. You know everything. You ain't got to think about it."
(Chuck Finder can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1724.)
Thursday, May 31, 2007
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Penguins center Sidney Crosby will become the youngest captain in NHL history today.
The team will formalize his appointment at a news conference at Mellon Arena.
Crosby has served as an alternate captain for most of his two seasons in pro hockey. He shared those duties with Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar and, before he severed ties to the team, John LeClair the past season.
Crosby, who will not turn 20 until Aug. 8, became the youngest scoring champion in league history in 2006-07, when he put up 120 points.
Vincent Lecavalier, who succeeded Chris Gratton as captain of Tampa Bay when Gratton was traded late in the 1999-2000 season, is the NHL's youngest captain to date but was about a month older than Crosby is when he inherited the "C."
Neither Crosby nor team officials could be reached for comment, but moving him into the captaincy for 2007-08 is an idea that has received almost universal support, inside and outside the organization, for many months.
The Penguins have not had a captain since a heart ailment forced Mario Lemieux to retire during the 2005-06 season.
Crosby will be the 12th captain in franchise history. The others are Ab McDonald, Ron Schock, Jean Pronovost, Orest Kindrachuk, Randy Carlyle, Mike Bullard, Terry Ruskowski, Dan Frawley, Lemieux, Ron Francis and Jaromir Jagr.
(Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com.)
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Jason Bay is greeted by his teammates as he enters the dugout after hitting a solo home run against the Padres in the sixth inning of last night's 4-1 win at PNC Park.
Left fielder Jason Bay's monstrous weekend in Cincinnati helped win him National League player of the week honors yesterday.
He was 10 for 20 for the week and had two home runs and 10 RBIs, bringing an astronomical slugging percentage of .950 and an equally impressive on-base percentage of .571. And this despite going 2 for 10 with five strikeouts in St. Louis, just before arriving in Cincinnati.
Bay expressed hope that, even with the change in venue yesterday, he can extend his run.
"If you play in a place that's hitter-friendly, it does well for your statistics," he said. "But, when you leave there, you can take it with you. You're not thinking about deep flyouts to the track or scuffling in any way. It's a positive feeling."
Bay has been player of the week four times in his career.
Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting.
The comments by Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting on the January day he was introduced as the team's principal owner were memorable not so much for what he said but how he said it. Nutting was asked about what appeared to be a serious lack of commitment to victory within the Pirates' organization.
Considering the team's 14 consecutive losing seasons, it was a fair question. Nutting didn't view it that way. He was taken aback and responded with indignation.
"Questioning my commitment or my family's commitment to winning, I think that's completely inappropriate.
"I will say this: I am absolutely committed to having the team win."
With the San Diego Padres, who were tied for first in the National League West before losing, 4-1, to the Pirates last night, in town, it seems a proper time to question the precise depth of Nutting's commitment. It's easy to talk about a commitment to winning. Everyone wants to win. Losing stinks. But actually reinforcing the desire to win with concrete action -- such as spending money and making tough decisions -- well, that's another matter.
It's not as if Nutting just came on the scene the day he was introduced as principal owner. He had been making major financial decisions for several years and doubtlessly was involved with the financially motivated giveaway of Aramis Ramirez, the best hitter the Pirates have developed since Barry Bonds, to the Chicago Cubs in July 2003.
If Nutting is interested in seeing what a real commitment to victory is, he should look to the Padres. Not too long ago, the Padres resembled the Pirates. In 2002 and 2003, they lost 194 games. At no time in their 14 years of defeat did the Pirates lose that many games in two consecutive seasons.
But the Padres didn't retrench. They spent. After losing 98 games in 2004, they increased their payroll from $55.4 million to $69.9 million. That's a commitment of deed, not word.
By spending money, the Padres improved their product. They went from 64 wins in 2003 to 85 in 2004. In 2005 and 2006, they won the National League West Division championship.
Although the Padres had been successful under general manager Kevin Towers, advancing to the World Series in 1998, in April 2005 San Diego ownership brought in Sandy Alderson to oversee baseball operations. Alderson, one of the most respected executives in the sport, was general manager of the Oakland Athletics when that team went to three consecutive World Series from 1988-90.
A man of Alderson's stature -- he had been serving as executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball -- did not come cheaply. But the Padres' commitment to victory was more than verbal. Ownership was willing to pay what it took to bring Alderson aboard.
Interestingly, a significant deficiency in the Pirates' operation is someone with a strong baseball background over general manager Dave Littlefield. CEO Kevin McClatchy fills that role and, despite being in ownership since 1996, he is a novice in baseball operations.
But why pay two salaries when you only have to pay one?
In the past offseason, the Padres needed to add to their starting rotation. They might have gone with a promising minor-leaguer. They didn't. Instead, they signed Greg Maddux, one of the greatest pitchers of the past 30 years and an automatic Hall of Famer five years after he retires.
Maddux is 41 and well past his greatness. But pitchers of his quality don't come cheap. He signed for $10 million. That's the kind of commitment the Pirates can't comprehend.
With Maddux signed, the Padres had one more open spot in their rotation. They signed David Wells, who is 44, to a $3 million contract.
At their ages, Maddux, who is 4-3, and Wells, who is 2-3 after taking the loss last night, were gambles. But they are gambles teams with a true commitment to winning must be willing to take.
The Padres' starter tonight will be Chris Young, who is 5-3 with a 2.70 ERA. His career record is 31-17. At 28, he's a nice pitcher to have. And the Pirates once had him. Littlefield traded him to Montreal in December 2002 for a reliever, Matt Herges, who was cut before the end of spring training.
Although Littlefield's almost six-year resume is filled with serious mistakes in player evaluation, none ranks higher than his casual trading of Young, who last season was sixth in the National League in earned run average, first in opponent's batting average and second in opponent's on-base percentage.
In some organizations, the many blunders of Littlefield would long ago have cost him his job. But those would be organizations with a serious commitment to winning.
Monday, May 28, 2007
So you think the intensive care nurses at New Castle's Jameson Memorial Hospital saw a different side of former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner when he faced a life-threatening situation a few weeks ago because of a loss of blood from a bleeding ulcer?
You are so wrong.
"They said they never had a patient like me before," Tanner said. "They told me I picked them up."
Amazing how the man has that effect on just about everyone.
Chuck Tanner waves to the crowd before throwing out the first pitch at the All-Star Game last year at PNC Park.
Click photo for larger image.
It was hard not to think of Tanner earlier this month when a Sports Illustrated poll asked the current baseball players to pick the friendliest among them. Detroit Tigers first baseman Sean Casey won in a landslide. Anyone who knows the Upper St. Clair kid -- appropriately nicknamed "Mayor" -- understands that vote. But if they picked baseball's all-time nicest man, Tanner surely would win. He's that good of a person.
That's why it brings great joy to report that Tanner is doing well, so well that he plans on being at the Pirates-San Diego Padres game tomorrow night at PNC Park in his role as a Cleveland Indians scout. Seeing him last week, first at his home just north of New Castle and then over lunch at the delightful nearby restaurant named after him, where he takes all of his meals, he looked as if he has at least 30 good years left.
"Thirty? I was thinking more like 40," Tanner said, winking. He will turn 78 on the Fourth of July.
Tanner was typically upbeat, remarkably upbeat considering the tough year he has had. It wasn't just his serious medical condition. He lost his wife of 56 years, Babs, in August after she fought a decade-long battle with a variety of health issues.
The house on East Maitland Lane, where Tanner has lived since 1959, is a lot quieter than it used to be, so quiet that he still struggles to come to grips with it. The family room has its share of souvenirs from his baseball career and even the odd Joe Paterno bobblehead, but mostly it's a shrine to Barbara Tanner. The only things he makes sure to point out are the pictures of her that he so treasures.
(To see much more of Tanner's priceless memorabilia, you have to go to Chuck Tanner's restaurant a mile or so from his home down Route 18. The walls are covered with photographs of anybody who's anybody in sports. It's truly a unique experience to nibble on a hefty club sandwich in the back corner booth at the same time Henry Aaron and Tanner and Paterno and Tanner are looking down over your shoulder.)
"I still can't believe she left me," Tanner said of his wife. "I talk to her all the time. 'Babs, how could you do this to me? I never had to pay a bill in my life ...' "
In a very normal way, his wife's passing helped Tanner to deal with the stress of his medical condition. He went to bed feeling just fine after working the Pirates-Chicago Cubs game April 30. But when he went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, he saw that his toilet bowl was filled with black blood. At 5 a.m., he phoned his son, Gary, who rushed him to the hospital.
"The nurses couldn't believe how relaxed I was," Tanner said. "I told them I had it made. If God takes me, I'll see Babs. If not, Babs will look down on me and help me recover."
A blood transfusion took Tanner out of immediate danger and subsequent surgery took care of the ulcer. He has been home for two weeks, working on regaining his strength.
During his hospital stay, Tanner found out just how many friends he has in baseball. Tigers manager Jim Leyland -- "the best manager I've seen over the years," Tanner said -- sent flowers. Former Pirates stars Dave Parker and Bill Madlock, who played for Tanner, called. So did his longtime lieutenants, Al Monchak and Tony Bartirome.
A lot more baseball people will be thrilled to see Tanner at the ballpark tomorrow night. You think the man is popular among his peers? Houston Astros manager Phil Garner left no doubt about that last summer when he managed the National League All-Star team at PNC Park and pulled all the right strings to get Tanner in the dugout as the team's honorary captain. Like Parker and Madlock, Garner played on Tanner's 1979 Pirates' team that won the World Series, probably the final world championship team that the Pirates will have in our lifetime.
That amazing tribute still brings Tanner close to tears. He wears the National League ring from that All-Star Game.
"I've had the greatest life in the world," he said. "How many guys can say they won a World Series in their back yard? How can that happen to a kid from Shenango?
"But you talk about highlights? That All-Star Game was one of the highlights of my life. I felt so good that night that I said I was going to come back and manage again. I'll go to A-ball if I have to."
The man has 30 good years left.
Monday, May 28, 2007
By Paul Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pirates' Jason Bay is congratulated by Adam LaRoche after Bay hit a three-run homer yesterday in the first inning as Reds catcher Chad Moeller looks on.
CINCINNATI -- Jim Tracy probably had a few flashbacks to his days as a youngster growing up in nearby Hamilton, Ohio.
Memorial Day weekend. Picnics. Slow-pitch softball games at North End Park.
Ah, the fun.
But yesterday wasn't much fun for the Pirates' manager, who watched his club score 14 runs and then have to hang on for dear life before tucking a 14-10 victory into the basket.
"We won this game with our bats, no question," Tracy said.
Most slow-pitch games are decided by the bats, after all.
This one featured 14 hits by the first six batters in the Pirates' lineup and nine RBIs by the Nos. 3-5 hitters -- Freddy Sanchez, 4, Adam LaRoche, 2 and Jason Bay, 3.
It also featured starter Zach Duke returning to a delivery that's very close to the one he used as a rookie in 2005 when he went 8-2 with a 1.81 earned run average in 14 starts.
Duke has struggled pretty much since.
After his start in St. Louis Tuesday night, Duke went to pitching coach Jim Colborn.
"I don't feel right," Duke said.
The two looked at videotape of Duke as a rookie and noticed a big change in his delivery, no doubt some of that difference being a tweak Colborn made in it a year ago.
Duke threw an extra-long bullpen session Friday to work on changing his delivery.
"It was something that needed to be done," Duke said.
That extra work was one reason Tracy pulled Duke after five innings yesterday. Another reason was that Duke yielded seven hits and five runs (three earned) on a humid afternoon during which balls flew into the seats with regularity.
This tweak in Duke's delivery is supposed to allow him to get more of a downward plane on his pitches.
"He'll get it," Tracy said. "I guarantee you, he'll get it."
"The consistency is not there," Duke said, "but I think I made some strides [yesterday]."
Except for an error by third baseman Jose Bautista, Duke would have blanked the Reds in the first three innings.
Freddy Sanchez hits a two-run single off Reds pitcher Gary Majewski in the eighth inning yesterday at The Great American Ball Park.
In the fourth, though, he allowed back-to-back home runs to Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Dunn. Ryan Freel's single drove in another run in the inning.
When the inning ended, Duke spent some time standing and staring hard at the wall of the dugout.
"I was frustrated," he said. "I couldn't repeat the mechanics [consistently]. I fell behind [on the count], and when you fall behind, pitches get hit hard."
Duke did wind up with his second win of the season. He got his first one in Cincinnati, too, way back on April 8.
As they did Saturday night, the Pirates presented their starting pitcher with a comfortable lead before he went to the mound.
They scored five runs in the first inning -- which they hadn't done since June 3, 2006 in a 6-4 Duke win against San Diego -- and had leads of 7-2, 11-5 and 14-9.
But they didn't nail this one down until Salomon Torres entered the game with two outs in the eighth inning.
With the Pirates ahead, 14-10, Tracy waved in his closer to relieve left-hander John Grabow and face Ken Griffey Jr. with a runner on first base.
"We'd taken it as far as we could go," Tracy said. "If they were going to beat us, they were going to have to beat the best we've got."
Torres allowed a single to Griffey, but then got the last four outs with little trouble.
The 24 runs set a record for a game at five-season-old Great American Ball Park, eclipsing by one the 23 amassed by the Reds and Chicago April 3, 2006 -- a 16-7 Cub victory.
The Pirates started the run parade with a leadoff walk to Bautista. Chris Duffy doubled him home. Sanchez singled Duffy to third. LaRoche lined a single into center field. Bay worked Kirk Saarloos through 11 pitches, then smoked the 12th pitch into the upper deck in left field.
Sanchez hit a sacrifice fly in the second.
Duke singled in a run in the third.
Ronny Paulino had a run-scoring single in the fifth before Jack Wilson homered.
Duffy doubled, stole third and trotted home on Sanchez's sacrifice fly in the sixth.
And in the eighth, pinch-hitter Nate McLouth touched off a three-run burst with a single. Bautista singled and Duffy advanced Bautista to second with a sharp ground ball to first base. Sanchez, who has 13 hits in his past 23 at-bats with runners in scoring position, singled in both runners. Sanchez scored on LaRoche's double into the left-field corner.
"I'm extremely encouraged by the way we hit with runners in scoring position [7 for 17] and with the team at-bats [runners advanced with outs] we had," Tracy said. "We did a great job."
Of course ...
"We had to in order to win the game," he said.
The Pirates try for a four-game sweep of the struggling Reds -- they've lost 20 of their past 25 games -- this afternoon.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
By John Harris
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Once a Steeler, always a Steeler.
No matter how hard he tries to move beyond the previous eight years of his life, Joey Porter, to some, will always be an ex-Steeler more than he's a Miami Dolphin.
Someone like yours truly, for instance.
When this reporter inquired whether Porter was still sharpening the axe he most certainly has to grind against the Steelers for releasing him two months ago, Porter seemed truly offended by the question.
"I'm not going to do an interview and make it sound like I'm mad at Pittsburgh because that's not even the situation," Porter said last week.
Unlike disgruntled former teammate Alan Faneca, Porter, who received a $12 million signing bonus from Miami, killed the Steelers with kindness.
"Pittsburgh showed me eight good years," he said. "I don't have bitter feelings or nothing like that toward the organization."
Of course, Porter wouldn't be the lightning rod for controversy that Steelers fans grew to love and hate with a passion if he didn't leave them with something to remember him by.
One vintage Joey Porter quote, coming right up.
"They had a decision to make. They can be happy with the decision," said Porter, who wanted to finish his career with the Steelers. "I obviously felt a certain way. I didn't have an opportunity to turn down a deal.
"I'm not mad. Do I feel like it was the right decision? No, I don't. I feel like if you have a chance to take care of one of your own, you should take care of your own. They didn't feel that way."
Asked if he believes his departure influenced Faneca's decision to call out Steelers management regarding his contract, Porter, who has spoken with Faneca, said no.
"It didn't take me to see that. They could have seen that when (Antwaan) Randle El and Chris Hope left," said Porter, referring to a pair of ex-Steelers who signed free-agent contracts elsewhere after the team won Super Bowl XL. "It's part of the business. That's pretty much how it works."
As for a recent interview with a local television station in which he promised to send a message to the Steelers front office during the Steelers-Dolphins Monday Night Football game Nov. 26 at Heinz Field, Porter says he'll let his play do the talking.
"I didn't really have a message," he said. "I'm just going to be fired up to play when I come back to Pittsburgh. That's pretty much it. It's nothing I'm trying to hype up."
Football-wise, little has changed for Porter.
Miami defensive coordinator Dom Capers, a former Steelers assistant coach, has made Porter feel at home.
"Dom Capers has pretty much some of the same schemes I was used to in Pittsburgh," he said. "I'm just trying to get acclimated to Florida and finish out my career there."
Porter will split his time living in Florida during the season and in his native California during the offseason.
"I've moved in my (new) house," he said. "It's the same schedule as when I was living in Pittsburgh. Just a different location where I'm playing football now."
John Harris is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Xavier Nady beats the throw to catcher Chad Moeller to score one of the Pirates' eight runs in the 10th inning last night against the Cincinnati Reds.
By Paul Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CINCINNATI -- It took more than nine innings for manager Jim Tracy's pregame words to bear fruit last night.
But when the Pirates acted on Tracy's message, they produced a bumper crop of runs.
Tracy, whose team stagnated offensively while it lost three games in St. Louis, addressed his squad for about 15 minutes before it went out to stretch.
The message had to do with regrouping from a five-game losing streak.
That streak ended in a large way in the 10th inning, during which the Pirates poured across eight runs and rocked reeling Cincinnati, 10-4.
It was the most productive inning for the Pirates since they scored nine runs in the second inning in an 11-0 victory in Montreal July 9, 2004.
So how does something like that happen?
"Nothing happened," said Jack Wilson, whose leadoff single began the inning and whose run-scoring single seemingly moments later ended the Pirates' scoring. "It's just baseball. It was a combination of us having good at-bats and them not catching the ball.
"People try to read too much into stuff like that. The balls are going to fall."
And fall they did after Wilson's ground-ball single to left began the 10th off usually reliable David Weathers.
Pirates trainer Brad Henderson checks Ryan Doumit after Doumit was hit in the head with a bat.
Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth dropped a bunt just in front of the plate. Wilson got a great break from first base, but Cincinnati catcher Chad Moeller opted to throw to second anyway.
"I didn't expect them to throw to second -- not with Jack running," McLouth said.
Wilson was safe by a wide margin, bringing up Jose Bautista, who put a soft single into short left field, loading the bases.
Chris Duffy hit a sacrifice fly to right, and the Pirates forged ahead.
"After that, we just kept swinging," Ronny Paulino said.
And scoring. And scoring.
Freddy Sanchez drove a ground-rule double into left-center field, scoring McLouth. Adam LaRoche drew an intentional walk.
Weathers nicked Jason Bay with a pitch, forcing in the third run of the inning.
Brad Salmon relieved an irritated Weathers.
Paulino greeted Salmon with a two-run double just inside third on a 1-2 pitch.
"That one made the game one-sided," Paulino said.
Xavier Nady shot a run-scoring single through the middle.
When center fielder Ryan Freel erred on the throw to the plate, Paulino also scored. Wilson's single to center brought Nady home.
"Strange game," Nady said. "We had some guys have good at-bats. We'd been scavenging for runs. That was encouraging for us."
Cincinnati, the holder of the worst record in baseball at 18-31, has lost 14 of its past 18 games. The Reds are 0-9 when they are tied after seven innings.
The Pirates are 20-27.
"Are we disappointed with our record? Yes," Tracy said. "But we're better than we were this time a year ago."
The Pirates were 14-33 through 47 games last season.
The point seems to be that, while these Pirates are less worse off than last season, they do not appear to be appreciably better than that team.
"I think we all understand we're not playing up to our capabilities," Tracy said. "We're not executing up to our capability.
"When you're having trouble scoring runs and you let several run-scoring opportunities get away from you, then you hear that the club is 'listless,' and it's 'this' and it's 'that.' When you don't do your fair share of executing in those situations, that's the impression that's left. It's not necessarily the case, but it's certainly the impression."
The Pirates wasted Duffy's one-out double in the first but struck for two runs against nemesis Aaron Harang -- he is 10-3 lifetime against the Pirates -- in the second.
Bay drove Harang's first pitch into the right-center field bleachers.
One out later, Nady, hitting just .227 against right-handers at game time, lined a 1-1 pitch into the left-field seats.
Paul Maholm gave the Pirates exactly the kind of start they wanted from the left-hander. He pretty much cruised through seven innings, throwing 99 pitches, and allowed two runs -- back-to-back home runs by Ken Griffey Jr. and Brandon Phillips in the sixth.
Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit left the game after batting in the top of the fourth. He was struck on the back of his head by Freel's bat as the Cincinnati outfielder swung and bounced to short in the third.
The Pirates said Doumit felt dizzy and removed him for precautionary reasons. He went to a local hospital for a CAT scan, which showed no significant injury.
Doumit probably will not play tonight.
Friday, May 25, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger, throwing during a minicamp in April, will get full control of the offense this season for the Steelers.
Mario Lemieux might be Ben Roethlisberger's most famous ongoing golf partner these days, but no match may be more telling for the Steelers' quarterback than the one he had early this week with someone else.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians delivered a message to his quarterback that fit him to a tee while they were on the course.
"He said 'This is your offense; you tell me what you like and don't like,' " Roethlisberger related yesterday.
Not the bashful type, Roethlisberger spoke up. He wants to use the no-huddle offense more often. It was a big topic during training camp last year but never really materialized during the season. He believes it will in 2007.
"I like the way he wants to run the no-huddle," Roethlisberger said. "Last year, we talked and talked and talked about doing it and never did it. We did it in the preseason against coach [Mike] Tomlin and Minnesota -- we marched down the field and I was done for the rest of the game. It was great. And then we never saw it.
"I like that he wants to do that and I truly believe this year that we will do it."
They will do much more of it if Roethlisberger can run it the way he did in practice Wednesday.
"He just had one of the best practices I've ever seen him have, and it was the no-huddle package," Arians said then. "He ran it to perfection -- smooth, without a hitch, his completion percentage is way up right now.
"I'm real pleased. I couldn't ask for anything more. His snap count, he's doing a great job with it, we're not jumping offsides. Those little things can create big things and make you a better offense."
The Steelers' new offense won't look like Peyton Manning's, but a bigger dose of the no-huddle seems in order.
"I think we'll see it at least once a game," said Roethlisberger, who ran a steady diet of no-huddle at Miami University. "That was pretty much all we did was no-huddle. We called it Little Muddle where just the linemen huddled, and I signaled out to the receivers."
The Steelers will use the no-huddle in both the shotgun formation and with Roethlisberger under center.
"We have 60-some plays in that no-huddle package that I can call," Roethlisberger said. "That's another thing that we talked about; it's me calling the plays, but, if Bruce or someone sees something, they can tell me, 'Ben, we want to see this real quick in the no-huddle,' and I can call it from there. But I like that he has the confidence in me to do that."
Arians has taken the bridle off his fourth-year quarterback. Whereas the coaches protected Roethlisberger in his first few years, they are now allowing him to call audibles, call the pass protections and, as he hopes, run more no-huddle.
"I think the first year they tried to [protect me] a little more, but it didn't work as well because I was just kind of running around crazy," Roethlisberger said. "My second year I think they did a little bit, and it worked pretty well. I think they still tried to do it a lot last year as well, even though I thought I'd grown a lot. I think they did it mostly because of the injuries; I didn't think they needed to.
"This year, I think it's gotten to the point where B.A.'s putting a lot of trust in me and me in him."
Roethlisberger has eased into a leadership role over his first three years, but seems to be embracing it now. He has done little things, like taking teammates' questions about a recent story to a reporter. His more famous leadership moment came, as described by Peter King in Sports Illustrated last week, when he had dinner with Mike Tomlin shortly after he was named Steelers coach.
Roethlisberger told his new coach that a lot of players were unhappy that Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt did not get his job, and that he would have to earn the players' respect and trust.
"It wasn't like one of those things where I stood up and told Tomlin you need to earn our respect," Roethlisberger said. "It wasn't anything like that. It was just that we have a lot of guys and a lot of differences going on and we have to earn each others' respect, and I think that we've done that."
Roethlisberger admits there was some resentment toward him in the Steelers' locker room early in his career because of the big money he made as a No. 1 draft choice, but he sees a big change.
"I think there was at first, but I think guys have learned that it's OK, we've grown into that," he said.
"As in everything, I always want to get better and I'll want to get better at being a leader -- not taking over, just being a presence in there for guys. I want guys to know that if they're in any kind of problem, if they need to come talk to someone, if they need a place to stay, a car, anything I can help them with I will be more than happy and willing to do that. I just want them to always know that and I think guys are starting to understand that more, especially the younger guys as they come up."
As for the even bigger money he stands to make on his next contract, something agent Ryan Tollner has broached with the Steelers, Roethlisberger wants no huddle on that one.
"I have enough to think about right now. Job security is always important, but there's a lot going on right now with other guys and so I'm not going to sit here and gripe and complain. I'm just going to let things happen that happen."
(Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com.)
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Thursday, May 24, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger politely passed word that he had no time for an interview yesterday after Steelers practice; he had to hurry to meet his golf partner, Mario Lemieux.
Roethlisberger will not top Lemieux on the golf course, but he might soon surpass him in another area. No athlete in the history of Pittsburgh pro sports earned more money than the Penguins' Hall of Famer. Roethlisberger could be the one to do that.
The Steelers and Roethlisberger's agent have had early talks about a contract extension for the young quarterback. While it appears nothing will be done this season, the machinery is gearing up for what should be the largest contract in the organization's history.
"We've had some discussions with them," agent Ryan Tollner said. "I'm not sure what they're planning, other than certainly they're considering they want to do a deal. If they would want to start [serious negotiations] before the season, we'd have to start soon. It'll be a complicated contract. If not before this season, we're open to discussion, but I definitely expect it to happen following this season."
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Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, declined comment on any possible negotiations with Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger's next deal looms large over the organization already and might be one reason they won't or can't pay six-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca enough to keep him here beyond the 2007 season.
Roethlisberger will enter his fourth NFL season among the lowest-paid starting quarterbacks in the NFL -- strictly in terms of salary for the 2007 season. He is set to earn a salary of $1 million this year. He has received, however, many bonuses since he was drafted in the first round in 2004, including the initial $9 million in signing and roster bonuses within the first 11 months after he was drafted.
Still, his salary this season is less than backup Charlie Batch, who will make $1,355,000. Neither Tollner nor Roethlisberger have complained about it, and the agent realizes that with three years left on the quarterback's rookie contract, an extension may be a year away.
"At this point, our approach with the Steelers has been to keep things very positive and do what's best for the team," Tollner said. "We understand they have needs and other players to do first. Ben is a team player, and his focus is winning games and whatever's best for the team in that regard."
The Steelers have an unwritten policy that they do not extend players' contracts until they reach the point where they have just one year left on the deal. They have made exceptions for quarterbacks, extending the contracts of Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox when they had two years left.
In fact, Stewart still holds the record for Steelers quarterbacks for signing bonuses -- $8.1 million when he extended his contract three years in 1998, when there were two years left on his old one. Even though it occurred nine years ago, that signing bonus is second in team history only to Hines Ward's $9 million in 2005 (Roethlisberger's first bonus in 2004 originally was reported at $9 million, but that included reporting bonuses, making the signing bonus closer to $7.2 million).
Roethlisberger's rookie contract, negotiated by his then-agent Leigh Steinberg, was done with the intent on both sides that it would be renegotiated after the 2008 season. The lack of serious negotiations to this point underscores that point, even if other teams have written new contracts for their franchise quarterbacks after their second or third seasons in the league.
Four examples of that are Tom Brady, who earned a new deal after his second season with the New England Patriots; Carson Palmer, whose contract was extended by the Cincinnati Bengals in his third season; Jake Plummer, restructured by the Arizona Cardinals after his third season, and Donovan McNabb, whose rookie deal was redone after his third season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Only the Cardinals came to regret those second deals.
Roethlisberger signed his six-year contract on the eve of training camp in 2004, and it was worth $14.26 million plus an $8 million roster bonus to be paid March 5, 2009. Because he reached so many performance bonuses and incentive clauses in his first two seasons, Roethlisberger earned many more millions.
"I'm sure the Steelers have a plan," Tollner said. "We've certainly discussed it with them and tried to figure what that plan is. We've mentioned their predicament with these other contracts and are doing our best to work with them."
Tollner promised there won't be a peep of discontent this year from Roethlisberger about his contract.
"At this point, Ben is not planning anything other than being there for every workout and playing this season to the best of his ability. Our approach is to communicate behind closed doors with the team, get something done and never have public scrutiny at all."
(Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3878. )
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In what is becoming a pattern, Penguins center Sidney Crosby was named player of the year by the Sporting News in a vote among National Hockey League players.
Crosby, 19, who won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring leader for 2006-07 with 120 points, received 110 of 210 votes from his peers. He also was named the magazine's All-Star center.
NHL players voted Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin the Sporting News rookie of the year. He garnered 121 of 210 votes after getting 85 points as a 20-year-old first-year NHL player.
The Penguins' Michel Therrien finished second to Nashville's Barry Trotz in coach of the year voting, which was a poll of league coaches.
Crosby earlier was named the top player by The Hockey News.
The NHL season awards will be announced during the league's annual soiree June 14 in Toronto. Crosby, Malkin and Therrien are finalists.
(Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.)
Monday, May 21, 2007
Trainer Tom Shaw -- noted conditioning expert and speed coach of the Tom Shaw Performance Camp at Disney World's Wide World of Sports Complex -- has trained Steelers linebacker James Farrior (pictured) since his days with the New York Jets and says Farrior is in better shape now than he was 10 years ago.
By John Harris
Monday, May 21, 2007
A new coach, Mike Tomlin, means new leadership for the Steelers.
It means players stepping out of their comfort zone and taking one for the team.
Every little thing means a lot. Even offseason workouts.
What began as a couple of players training at the Tom Shaw Performance Camp at Disney World's Wide World of Sports Complex has evolved into a Steelers group project.
No fewer than seven Steelers -- including six defensive players and three projected starters -- have made Orlando an offseason destination when they're not practicing or training with the team in Pittsburgh.
The players trained in Orlando prior to both minicamps. They'll return to Orlando following the organized team activities sessions scheduled tomorrow though June 14. They'll remain in Orlando until training camp opens in July.
Credit cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker James Farrior with following Tomlin's advice and assuming more of a leadership role since the departure of linebacker Joey Porter.
"I'm not a rah-rah guy. I just try to do it by example,'' said Taylor, who has spoken often with Tomlin about becoming more of a team leader. "I just wanted to get the guys down there so we can get a feel for each other, especially on defense. If I can get guys to come to Orlando to work out, then we come back up here, just that togetherness, that brotherly love, that's all I'm looking for.''
The list of Steelers training in Orlando also includes linebacker Larry Foote, cornerbacks Bryant McFadden, Ricardo Colclough and Anthony Madison, and wide receiver Santonio Holmes.
Seventh-round draft pick Dallas Baker, a wide receiver from Florida, trained in Orlando prior to the NFL Scouting Combine and the draft.
Speaking at the Steelers' recently completed minicamp, Farrior looked like he was in midseason form.
Shaw -- a noted conditioning expert and speed coach who has trained Farrior since his days with the New York Jets -- said Farrior is in better shape now than he was 10 years ago.
"When I leave here, whenever we don't have (team) obligations, I'm right back down in Orlando,'' Farrior said. "Ike lives down there. I stay with Ike, or I'll rent a place.
"Tom Shaw's probably one of the best trainers in the country. It's good to go down there and get some of that knowledge.''
The players say they enjoy training in Orlando because Shaw not only trains them hard, he focuses on their specific areas of need.
Farrior led the Steelers with 126 tackles in 2006. At 32, he's training this offseason to be a more physical player, Shaw said.
Taylor, meanwhile, wants to bounce back from an 8-8 season that included him missing five starts under former coach Bill Cowher.
"Ike's lifting a lot more this year. James is lifting a lot more -- he's never been like that this time of year,'' Shaw said. "Ike is trying his best not to let anyone talk negative about him. He's not leaving a stone unturned. If he's not in Pittsburgh working out, he's here working out.''
Shaw said former Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson is supposed to come to Orlando next month to work with Taylor on defensive back techniques.
"Some teams make their kids stay and do their program,'' Shaw said. "And it's not very specific to what they're doing. The good thing is the Steelers allow their players to go train where they want to train, or where they feel like they're getting better.''
Holmes said he came to Orlando last year for the first time after seeing former Ohio State teammate Michael Jenkins improve his 40 time.
"I got a lot more explosive in my legs and my abs,'' said Holmes, who caught 49 passes for 824 yards and two touchdowns and also returned a punt for a touchdown as a rookie.
Said Taylor: "We're going to get in great shape, we're going to work. If you're in great shape, the football aspect just comes natural.''
Tomlin will take take new team leadership wherever he can find it. Orlando looks like a good place to start.
John Harris is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Pirates lost another one yesterday, which was no surprise considering this weak-hitting club was facing future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. Even in his dotage -- he'll be 44 in September -- the Big Unit is too much for the Pirates. He struck out 10 and allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings as the Arizona Diamondbacks won at PNC Park, 5-2. The Pirates were even more submissive against the three Arizona relievers, who retired 10 consecutive batters once Johnson departed.
And so it is that the Pirates continue their dogged pursuit of .500, a chase that is beginning to look like the impossible dream. They're five games under .500, which is not that much, except for them. After a promising April (12-12), they're a miserable 7-12 in May and looking every day like, well, the same old Pirates.
But here's what's really disturbing about this team. The plan to move forward with a group of players who are under contract through 2009, a plan that once had promise, is unraveling daily. The players that were being counted on as a major part of the team's future are either failing or failing to live up to expectations. At best, this was a modest group. But it's no longer at its best and the small window of opportunity that seemed to exist in 2008 and 2009 is narrowing.
* Paul Maholm. He took the loss yesterday, giving up five runs and eight hits in five innings. Aside from one exceptional start, a three-hit shutout, Maholm has been extremely disappointing after a good second half last season. His earned run average is a whopping 5.82 and opponents are batting .309 against him. He has allowed 10 home runs in 51 innings. He should be a candidate for a trip to the minors, but he's not. "He has to stay in the rotation," manager Jim Tracy said when asked about Maholm's future. That, as much as anything, says it all about what the Pirates have behind Maholm at Indianapolis.
* Zach Duke. He has fallen dramatically since his brilliant rookie season in 2005, when he was 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA. Opponents -- and this is hard to believe -- are batting .340 against Duke. To put that in perspective, only three players in the National League are batting higher than that. Perhaps worse is the fact that opponents are slugging (total bases divided by at-bats) .527 against Duke, worst in the National League. With those numbers in mind, it's incredible that Duke is 2-5 and not 0-7. This one time ace-in-the-making now has the look of a journeyman -- at best.
* Chris Duffy. He's a player the Pirates desperately need to succeed, and he's not. After a promising April, .264 batting average, .350 on-base percentage, Duffy has slumped badly. He's batting .153 in May with a .175 on-base percentage. Duffy has teased the Pirates before. In 2005, he batted .350 in the final two months of the season. He batted .336 last September. But he has never been able to put a full season together. At 27, time is running out. But Duffy's skill set, as a leadoff hitter and center fielder, is so important to the Pirates they can't even think about giving up on him.
* Andrew McCutchen. The thinking of some was that if Duffy failed, McCutchen might be waiting to take over for him. It doesn't look that way. No one doubts McCutchen's exceptional talent, but he's struggling at Class AA Altoona. He was dropped to seventh in the Curve's batting order yesterday and was hitting .180.
* Jose Bautista. He has made the transition to third base brilliantly, playing the position in a Gold Glove style. His offense, though, has been a disappointment. He's batting .261, which is acceptable, but his lack of power is troubling. After his recall in May of last season, he hit 10 home runs in 145 at-bats, an extremely promising rate. Those numbers look like a mirage today. Since that start, he has homered only eight times in 389 at-bats, an unacceptable rate for a third baseman. Bautista is 26 and with little major-league experience. His power stroke could return.
* Jose Castillo. Once a definite building block of the future, a possible Gold Glove second baseman with some pop in his bat, Castillo's career has taken a hard left turn. He's a utility player, who might not have a future with the Pirates.
* Xavier Nady. The Pirates need Nady to be a productive everyday player, a possible middle-of-the lineup presence. First, though, he must show he can handle right-handed pitching. He's batting .224 against right-handers this year, 19 points lower than his career average. He's a terror against left-handers, batting .393 this season and .332 for his career. What's alarming is that he has shown less power against left-handed pitching. At 28, Nady needs to step up soon or be relegated to a platoon role.
That's a lot of players on the bubble -- too many to expect anything but more of the same from this team the remainder of the season.
(Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com.)
Sunday, May 20, 2007
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Jason Bay watches as ball drops in between him and second baseman Freddy Sanchez on a base hit by the Diamondbacks Stephen Drew in the fifth inning last night at PNC Park.
It seemed a questionable choice, to be generous.
Arizona was slithering back into the game, down four runs in the seventh inning, and bases were loaded. A big hit was needed, and the Diamondbacks' pinch-hitter for light-hitting Robby Hammock surely would be switch-hitting slugger Tony Clark, owner of 232 career home runs and extraordinary power.
And Pirates manager Jim Tracy's signal to the bullpen was to summon ...
The same Marty McLeary who had been hit hard in every outing since his recall from Class AAA Indianapolis two weeks ago?
The same Marty McLeary who had been used only in mopup duty?
Clark's grand slam high into the center-field seats brought a tie that stunned and silenced the crowd of 30,677 at PNC Park, and Arizona's two-run eighth off Matt Capps would cap an astounding 9-8 victory for the Diamondbacks last night.
Pirates reliever Marty McLeary walks back to the mound after surrendering Tony Clark's tying grand slam in the seventh inning last night at PNC Park.
Tracy had all his relievers available except John Grabow, who had created the mess that inning, and Shawn Chacon, who had pitched five innings Thursday. He could have brought in Damaso Marte, Jonah Bayliss or Matt Capps, those he usually uses with the game on the line.
Or even Salomon Torres. Some managers in recent years have taken to calling on their closers in the game's most critical situations rather than just the ninth inning.
Instead, Tracy chose McLeary, whose first three appearances with the Pirates resulted in eight hits -- three of them home runs -- and a 7.36 ERA.
Tracy was asked the glaring question: Why?
"Well, you saw what happened in the eighth inning with Matt Capps," Tracy replied. "And some of that still has to do with the hangover that we're suffering from a couple days ago."
That was a reference to the six innings the bullpen turned in Thursday, although five of those came from Chacon. Capps did not pitch that night but recorded four outs Friday.
"He does that and goes out there tonight, and his fastball was not quite as crisp as it normally is," Tracy said, still discussing Capps. "And that's what happens when you start having to extend guys further than where they need to be."
Asked if he might have chosen Marte rather than McLeary, Tracy turned to the topic of control. Grabow's two walks were pivotal in that seventh inning.
"One thing for certain, what we definitely needed were strikes," Tracy said. "We weren't throwing too many. Damaso came into the last game, and the first three pitches he threw were balls one, two and three."
But Marte recovered that night and got a grounder that resulted in an error. It was his only batter. Marte has walked only five batters all season, has a 0.71 ERA and has limited opponents to a .196 average.
And that was it on the subject of McLeary.
McLeary, who pitched well for the Pirates as a September callup last fall and for Indianapolis early this season, had not been placed in a situation such as this since his most recent recall. But he would not offer it as an excuse.
Freddy Sanchez is unable to turn double play as the Diamondbacks Mark Reynolds breaks it up.
"I've got to be able to come in and get that out," McLeary said. "I try to stay ready whenever down there. I'm going to be ready whenever that phone rings."
The Pirates had the game in a vise grip early on, taking a 7-1 lead in the third inning with Tom Gorzelanny, one of their two aces, on the mound.
The highlights of that inning included Jason Bay's five-pitch walk off Arizona rookie Micah Owings with the bases loaded, Ryan Doumit's 12-pitch walk right after that, Xavier Nady's RBI single and Gorzelanny's two-run bouncer through the right side.
Gorzelanny would keep it at 7-2 by the time he exited after six innings, but Grabow found immediate trouble in the fateful seventh.
That started with Conor Jackson's leadoff home run and continued with a walk to Orlando Hudson.
"That's what killed us," Tracy said. "OK, so Conor Jackson hits a home run, and it's 7-3. The last thing you want to do is walk somebody."
One out later, Mark Reynolds singled. Carlos Quentin bounced into a forceout that might have been a 6-4-3 double play except that second baseman Freddy Sanchez was slow on the transfer.
"It seemed a little slow in developing," Tracy said.
Chris Snyder walked to load the bases.
Tracy pulled Grabow.
McLeary ran up a full count on Clark, including two swinging strikes on high heat. But the sixth pitch, a right-down-the-pipe fastball, resulted in his towering blast and a 7-7 tie.
"I was trying to stay in on him, and it ran back over the plate," McLeary said.
"I was fortunate to get into a count where, obviously, he doesn't want to walk a run in," Clark said. "And I put a good swing on it."
It was Clark's sixth home run of the season in just 66 at-bats -- all six left-handed -- and his third career grand slam.
Arizona made that count by scoring twice off Capps in the eighth. Stephen Drew and Jackson singled, then were bunted up a base. Eric Byrnes was intentionally walked and, one out later, Quentin lined a two-run single to center.
Bay's two-out RBI single pulled the Pirates within 9-8, but Doumit's popup stranded two, and they went down 1-2-3 in the ninth.
"That's baseball," Gorzelanny said after his chance to improve to 6-2 -- and tie for the National League lead in victories -- was wasted. "Games like this happen."
(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Sunday, May 20, 2007
What a sight Troy Polamalu must have been, relaxing in the hot tub on that cold January day.
Talk about a great place, a fabulous resort, to just get away to for a few days after the Steelers played their final game of the Bill Cowher era. A whole season of 8-8 frustration, not to mention an awful lot of aches and pains, were going up with the steam from the soothing water. Polamalu's wife, Theodora, was off being pampered, getting a massage. He had a few quiet moments to himself and was at peace. It's not hard to imagine him sitting back, closing his eyes, drifting away ...
"Then this old man comes walking up," Polamalu said.
The two chatted, as people tend to do at a hot tub.
"I asked him where he's from," Polamalu said. "He said he lives all over the world. I say, 'No, seriously. What do you do?' He says, 'I own this place.' "
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa.
It was Joe Hardy.
No, there was no sign of Hardy's 22-year-old bride-to-be.
Just in case you were wondering.
"Listen, they're having a surprise 84th birthday party for me today. How would you like to come?" Hardy asked.
So that's how the Polamalus ended up as special guests at Hardy's table, along with Robin Williams, Gov. Ed Rendell and Tom Ridge, listening to Bette Midler and Christina Aguilera sing and watching all the beautiful people at the party of all parties, even if it wasn't much of a surprise for the very wealthy man of the hour.
"A pretty amazing weekend," Polamalu recalled last week. "We didn't even have clothes with us. We had to buy everything there."
It was pricey, but Polamalu can afford it.
One day soon, presumably with the Steelers, he will sign an enormous contract. Maybe it won't pay him Hardy-like money, but it will make him the highest-paid player on the team.
Don't you wish, Alan Faneca?
The Steelers might be able to get by losing one All-Pro after the coming season. That would be the unhappy Faneca, who made such an ugly scene at minicamp last weekend when he went public with his contract conundrum. But the team can't afford to lose a second great player. It has to find a way to do a new deal with Polamalu, who also will be a free agent after the season if he isn't re-signed.
If it's an either/or situation, Faneca or Polamalu, the Steelers have to go with Polamalu, who's right behind Ben Roethlisberger at the top of their most-indispensable-players list.
"He's our playmaker, our star," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said at minicamp. "We run a lot of stuff in our defense that's just for him. We can't let him go."
It's nice to think new coach Mike Tomlin has gone to the Rooneys with that same message.
Much has been said and written about the type of defense Tomlin will coach. Will he stick with the 3-4, zone-blitz scheme that Cowher preferred? Or will he slowly convert to a 4-3, cover-2 defense that he learned under Tony Dungy? It's a fascinating topic, but the bottom line never changes: Tomlin needs great players to make either defense work.
The Steelers need Polamalu to be a great defense.
"He's the best player I've ever seen at safety," Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. said last season. "He's phenomenal."
It was in the game at Cleveland last year that Polamalu left no doubt that he's one of the NFL's special players. On a three-play sequence in the fourth quarter, he used his incredible closing speed on first down to run down Browns quarterback Charlie Frye for a sack in front of the Steelers' bench; displayed his toughness on second down by slicing through a mass of humanity to tackle running back Jason Wright after a 2-yard gain; and showed his marvelous football instincts on third down by pulling up on a blitz and leaping to bat down Frye's pass intended for Winslow. The Browns punted, and the Steelers scored a late touchdown to win, 24-20.
That's why Foote said of Polamalu that day, "I've been playing a long time, and I've never seen anyone make plays like he makes."
And that's why Foote says now, "His presence alone out there makes you better. Playing next to him breeds confidence. Knowing he's next to you makes you stronger."
Polamalu is saying little about his contract situation. He says little about just about everything and says it very quietly. "I don't know what's going on. I'm just living. ... Only God knows what's going to happen." But Polamalu did add, "Definitely, I'd love to be here. This is home. I live here year-round. I don't think I have to make a case for that."
Surely, you like reading that more than Faneca's startling promise: "This will be my last year as a Pittsburgh Steeler." But the reality is, neither statement means much at this point of the negotiating game. To keep Polamalu, the Steelers are going to have to come up with a very big number on a contract. He might not be paying attention to the negotiations, but his agent certainly is.
Polamalu seemed more interested in what's happening with Faneca. "He's somebody everyone on this team looks up to." Like the Steelers' other veterans, he's wary that Cowher left, that linebacker Joey Porter was released, that Faneca appears all but gone. "I think everybody is a little unsure about the direction of the team."
Don't take that the wrong way, though.
In the next breath, Polamalu said, "I think it's good that things are shaken up a little. Everybody's got to work to establish themselves again. ... There's always apprehension when there's change. I went through it at USC when coach [Pete] Carroll came in. All of us were unsure about what was going to happen. That turned out pretty well."
Carroll won big and still is winning big because of great players.
Tomlin needs great players to be successful.
The Steelers want to give their new coach a fair shot?
They have to do a deal with Polamalu.
(Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com.)
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Ronny Paulino slides safely past the tag of Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero in the fifth inning last night at PNC Park.
By Dejan Kovacevic
For a strikeout pitcher, Doug Davis is blessed with neither overwhelming velocity nor exceptional breaking stuff. But he does have a maddening knack for getting hitters to swing at pretty much whatever he throws, no matter its location.
A week ago, he and his ilk were the free-swinging Pirates' worst enemy.
Not anymore, apparently.
An all-through-the-lineup patient approach, seldom seen before this week, resulted in 14 hits, four walks, three-run home runs by Xavier Nady and Ryan Doumit and, ultimately, an 11-5 dunking of the Arizona Diamondbacks last night before 32,682 at PNC Park.
Davis gave up seven of those runs and was chased in the fifth inning.
Pitch count: 101.
"What's happening right now at the plate for us is the way you see a successful baseball team perform," manager Jim Tracy said. "Look at all our big hits tonight. Look how many came in deep counts. Look how many came after two outs. You become a better hitter when you take pitches you can't hit, and when you swing at the ones you can hit."
Everything seems to follow from there.
The Pirates have walked 25 times in six games since Sunday, the day after a 50-minute, closed-door meeting in which Tracy and hitting coach Jeff Manto urged all position players to be more patient, more selective at the plate. That average of 4.2 walks per game is a sweeping upgrade on the 2.57 mark of the first 35 games.
It surely is no coincidence, then, that the offense has broken out for 44 runs in these six games, an eye-popping average of 7.3.
Nor that the eruption last night included a 5-for-15 tally with runners in scoring position and 10 of the 11 RBIs coming after two outs.
Can it continue?
"Each night, there's a different plan," Manto said. "Some pitchers, you don't want to let too many pitches go by. But our word on Davis was that he was spraying the ball a little, and we needed to be patient. That's what we were."
What has changed?
"I don't think our approaches have changed," he said. "I think the results have changed."
Starter Ian Snell delivers against the Diamondbacks last night. He gave up four runs on seven hits and struck out seven for his fourth win.
Ian Snell failed to achieve seven innings for just the third time in his nine starts, lasting 52/3 and getting charged with four runs. But, in something that is becoming strangely common, it did not matter much because of all the offense.
The Pirates made Davis toil from the outset and, in the third inning, it paid off. Freddy Sanchez singled on the sixth pitch he saw, Jason Bay followed suit on his third pitch, and Nady worked the count full before ramming a high, flat fastball above the Clemente Wall for his fifth home run and a 3-0 lead.
Nady, carrying a 3-for-24 slump into this one, had a sharply struck single, too.
"I've felt good at the plate the past few days, mostly because I feel I've been swinging at quality pitches," he said. "It's all about pitch selection."
Tracy saw it the same way.
"He stayed off some tough pitches in that at-bat," Tracy said. "He was chasing some of those early in the season."
The fifth inning brought an even greater output through mostly the same approach.
Jose Bautista and Sanchez opened by drawing walks, then took second and third on a wild pitch. Bay and Nady, in a bit of a flashback, struck out by fishing at offerings well out of the zone.
But Adam LaRoche, the Pirates' leader with 23 walks, took his count to 2-1 before lashing a two-run single up the middle.
Ronny Paulino singled off a 1-1 count. Even Jose Castillo, the freest of free swingers, took a pitch before his single drove in another run. Snell's first-pitch single made it 7-0, and Davis was lifted.
Arizona, also struggling on offense most of the season, scored four times against Snell in the sixth. There nearly was more once Jonah Bayliss had replaced him: Robby Hammock's single to right field had Carlos Quentin trying to score from second, but Nady's no-hop bullet to Paulino nailed him at the plate to end the inning.
"That was huge," Tracy said. "The momentum was shifting the other way."
The Diamondbacks added to that shift with another run in the seventh to pull within 7-5, but the Pirates answered in the bottom half of the inning. LaRoche doubled -- on a full count -- took third on a passed ball and scored on Castillo's groundout.
LaRoche's average is up to .203, the result of a 15-for-42 awakening in the past 13 games.
To top if off, pinch-hitter Doumit's home run, his third of the season, tacked on three runs in the eighth.
That came on a full count, too.
"A great, pinch-hit, major-league at-bat," Tracy called it.
Matt Capps and Salomon Torres finished it off by retiring all seven batters they faced.
Tom Gorzelanny, 5-2 with a 2.36 ERA, pitches tonight as the Pirates try for their first three-game winning streak since taking five in a row April 24-27.
(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Pirates starter Tom Gorzelanny pitched seven innings last night, allowing five hits with no runs against the Marlins at PNC Park. The Pirates won 7-0.
By Dejan Kovacevic
At some point, perhaps soon, Tom Gorzelanny's name will be on the tip of the National League's collective tongue.
It would seem that has not happened yet.
Minutes after Gorzelanny's seven shutout innings sparked the Pirates to a 7-0 silencing of Florida last night at PNC Park, a few in the Marlins' clubhouse needed a little help in identifying him correctly.
"You've just got to tip your hat to ... I want to say his name, Gorzelanny?" Florida ace Dontrelle Willis said after taking a tough loss. "He did a great job today. It was his night."
"We're not scoring any runs," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said, bemoaning his slumping lineup. "We had a chance there, and he ... uh, how do you pronounce his name?"
For the record, it is GORE-zuh-LAWN-ey.
And anyone interested in learning more about him should check the league's pitching leaders, especially among left-handers: His record is 5-2, tied with Willis, the Milwaukee Brewers' Chris Capuano and the Philadelphia Phillies' Cole Hamels for most victories by a southpaw, and his 2.36 ERA is second to none.
The Pirates' Jose Castillo high fives teammate Chris Duffy after they both came home for runs six and seven respectively against the Florida Marlins last night at PNC Park.
In fact, it ranks seventh among all pitchers -- left or right -- in Major League Baseball.
There is more: Gorzelanny has gone seven innings in each of his past three starts and been charged with a total of three runs. All but one of his eight starts have met the quality standard of six innings and three runs or less. And he has struck out 34 while walking 13, including five and zero last night, respectively.
"Tom Gorzelanny has pitched terrific all year," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "He's throwing three pitches for strikes, hitting quality spots ... it's tough to deal with pitchers like that."
As tough as any lefty in the league right now?
"No doubt," reliever John Grabow said. "He's got a great fastball, a good slider, a curveball and a changeup. He's mixing his pitches, and he's got deception, too. If you've got all that going for you from the left side, you can be pretty dominating."
"The numbers speak for themselves," first baseman Ryan Doumit said. "You look at his track record, and he did that every year in the minor leagues. What's to keep him from doing it up here?"
Gorzelanny, 24, was starring in the minors at this time last year, actually, but he has carried that success into majors without a hitch: He was promoted in July and, after a bit of settling in, his ERA from July 23 until now is 2.43 over 16 starts.
Still, he appears to be keeping a level head.
"I'll say this all year: This is my first full season in the bigs," Gorzelanny said. "I'm doing well, and I'm feeling happy about that. But the main thing is that there's still more work to be done. I've still got a long way to go. I'm far from established."
And the pressure that might come from performing so well?
"I'm not going to worry about what anyone says or what the stats are. I'm going to go out there every fifth day and try to win a ball game."
That is something Willis has done with regularity, of course, and this season is no exception, given his 5-3 record. But it was clear from the outset that he would need to pitch with pinpoint precision to match Gorzelanny.
As Willis put it, "I knew it was going to be competitive."
He was right: The Marlins would muster only five hits off Gorzelanny -- all singles -- and six baserunners, only two of those getting as far as second.
The Pirates nicked Willis for two runs in his six innings. One came in the first when Jack Wilson walked, took third on Freddy Sanchez's double and scored on Jason Bay's forceout. The other came in the sixth on Ronny Paulino's fourth home run, an 0-2 slider he launched into the bullpens beyond left-center for a 2-0 lead.
Two batters later came an even more momentous hit, in some ways: Gorzelanny finally snapped his career drought at the plate at 0 for 36 by squibbing a ball through the left side.
That drew a standing ovation from the 12,958 on hand and plenty of good-natured razzing in the dugout.
"Yeah, but it's great," Gorzelanny said. "I'll be able to tell my grandkids I got my first hit off Dontrelle Willis."
There would be more fun from there as the Pirates added five in the eighth off the Florida bullpen: Jose Castillo's double to the base of the fence in center drove in two runs, Chris Duffy's suicide squeeze -- with Paulino sprinting from third, no less -- brought another, and Sanchez capped a 4-for-4 night with a two-run liner to center.
For Castillo, filling in for injured Jose Bautista, it was his first RBI and a rare show of upbeat emotion when he reached second base.
"I was so excited," he said. "It's been a long time without playing. This felt good."
Matt Capps and Salomon Torres completed the shutout, the Pirates' second of the season, and the team had its first back-to-back victories since April 26-27.
(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com.)
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talks with guards Alan Faneca, left, and Kendall Simmons Sunday in warm-ups for the last day of minicamp.
The career of one of baseball's great managers was made on a spring-training day in 1991 when Jim Leyland jumped in the face of Pirates superstar Barry Bonds in Bradenton, Fla. Bonds, the National League's Most Valuable Player the year before, had been sulking through a workout, acting like a spoiled brat because he wasn't happy with his contract. Leyland, though seething, let him go for a while -- he doesn't like putting his laundry out in public -- but he finally erupted on Bonds in front of the television cameras when he saw Bonds show up coach Bill Virdon.
"If you don't want to be here, get the hell out of here," Leyland screamed.
No one ever looked at Leyland -- or Bonds, for that matter -- the same way again.
They looked at Leyland in a much better light, the respect for him clear and estimable because of the way he stood up to a star player.
I'm thinking maybe, just maybe, the past weekend at Steelers minicamp will prove to be the same sort of career-defining moment for new coach Mike Tomlin.
No, there was no juicy public confrontation between Tomlin and pouting All-Pro guard Alan Faneca at the team's South Side headquarters. There merely was a brief, quiet chat during lunch Saturday after Faneca had followed up his angry tirade Friday against Steelers management and its negotiating tactics with him by missing a mandatory practice Saturday morning.
There's also no guarantee Faneca will respond the same way Bonds did. Bonds had an another MVP-caliber season in '91 and led the Pirates to a division championship. Faneca's bitterness might carry into training camp and the season, although it's hard to imagine it affecting his play because he has been such a terrific team guy and still must feel an obligation to give his best for his teammates if no longer for the Rooneys.
But that doesn't mean Tomlin didn't do a fabulous job handling a very difficult situation.
This couldn't have been the way Tomlin wanted to start his head coaching career. It's tough enough that he's a young coach replacing Bill Cowher, a legend of sorts around here. Now he had to face this kind of distraction at his first mandatory team function?
It didn't seem fair.
Then again, who said life is fair?
One of the reasons the Steelers released linebacker Joey Porter after last season was that management felt he might be a disruptive locker-room force heading into the final year of his contract. But the team couldn't release Faneca or trade him for less than equal value; he, arguably, is the Steelers' best player and is in the prime of his career. Management knew he was unhappy with his contract status but couldn't have imagined him going off like he did Friday. He said, among other things, that he wanted to be traded and didn't care to what team and that he couldn't see himself being a team captain for a franchise that clearly didn't want him. He didn't back off from his earlier comments that he wasn't happy the Steelers picked Tomlin to replace Cowher instead of one of Cowher's former assistants, Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt.
Welcome to Pittsburgh, coach!
Tomlin never flinched.
He never lost his poise, not once.
Much like Leyland, but in a very different way, he left no doubt that he was the man in charge and that this ugly little episode wasn't going to change that.
Man, he was impressive.
"It's part of the territory in today's NFL," Tomlin said, shrugging.
The man is 35 -- only 5 years older than Faneca -- but he showed, at least in this instance, that he's wise beyond his years. He made it a point to treat the great Faneca with the proper respect. "Everything I've heard about him is he's a professional. ... It's an emotional deal for him -- and rightfully so. It's his livelihood." But, at the same time, he made it clear the Steelers were going to move forward, preferably with Faneca, but without him if necessary. "This is a lesson for us as a football team. Adversity is part of it. Distractions are part of it. ... The standard of expectation is not going to change regardless of what's going on."
Cowher couldn't have handled it better.
Tomlin still has much to prove as a coach. He must prove he can build a team, draft the right players, sign the right free agents. He must prove he can motivate his guys and get the best out of them all season long. He must prove he and his staff can do the X's and O's better than the coaches on the other sideline.
Tomlin still must win his first game, for heaven's sake.
But as far as standing tall in the tough times and not wilting under the pressure?
That won't be a problem for this guy.
He has already proven that.
(Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Monday, May 14, 2007
Monday, May 14, 2007
Jose Bautista grabs his leg after being tagged out by the Braves' Jarrod Saltalamacchia yesterday at PNC Park. Bautista sustained a sprained ankle on the play.
By Dejan Kovacevic
Take your pick.
The Pirates finally ...
A. Found a pitcher with a high enough career ERA that they could hit.
B. Found a defense generous enough to help them along on the basepaths.
C. Found a way to look something other than petrified at the plate.
Or, it might well have been D, all of the above.
Those rare sounds reverberating through PNC Park, that of the home team's bats making firm contact with baseballs, resulted in -- sit down for this -- a 13-2 thumping of the Atlanta Braves yesterday afternoon in which the Pirates' offense rang up a season-high 18 hits, drew seven walks and went 9 for 19 with runners in scoring position.
"That was pretty nice," manager Jim Tracy said, smiling. "Offense throughout the lineup."
"That gives us a little taste of what we're capable of," first baseman Adam LaRoche said after a double and two walks. "I don't want to fool anybody and say we're capable of scoring eight or 10 runs a day, but you saw the quality of the at-bats, the way we worked the count and took walks, the way we fought off tough pitches ... it was fun."
OK, so Atlanta's pitcher, Anthony Lerew, was riding buses with Class AAA Richmond a week ago, had a 6.75 career ERA in Major League Baseball and was starting a game at the top level for only the second time. Five of the Pirates' runs and seven of their hits came in his 32/3 innings.
And yeah, two other runs came on third baseman Pete Orr's throwing error in the fourth that handed the Pirates a 5-0 lead. The Braves were charged with two wild pitches and a passed ball, too.
But that did little, it seemed, to diminish the magnitude of the event.
Jack Wilson eludes the tag of Braves catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia yesterday at PNC Park.
For one, the Pirates topped seven runs for the first time. It came in their 36th game, which is one game longer than the previous franchise record for such futility from the outset of a season, that in 1965.
For another ...
"Hey, that was outstanding," shortstop Jack Wilson said after reaching base all five times up, three of those on singles, and driving in a run. "It was just fun to be out there. We got on base, we stole, we did hit-and-runs, did everything offensively a team can ask for."
Well, there were no home runs.
Still, go figure a team looking so thoroughly lost, then looking like it could extend innings for hours.
"That's baseball," Wilson said.
A night earlier, center fielder Chris Duffy was lugging a 4-for-34 May around his neck as he spoke in a nearly silent clubhouse about how poor hitting can be contagious.
Yesterday, he was 3 for 4 with a double, a walk, a stolen base and a sacrifice bunt.
"I guess it's pretty evident that contagious goes both ways, huh?" Duffy said. "You get that early lead, and you just see people relax. It's not something you talk about in the dugout or anything. It's something you subconsciously feel."
Other standouts on a day when every starting position player had a hit and no fewer than two men reached base safely in every inning: Freddy Sanchez went 3 for 6 with three RBIs; Jason Bay and Ronny Paulino each went 2 for 4 with two RBIs; and Ryan Doumit stayed sizzling with an RBI double and a single.
To be sure, Pirates starter Ian Snell was not complaining. He had been getting only 2.4 runs per game of support, but he seized upon the early lead and went seven solid innings -- two runs, seven hits and seven strikeouts -- to improve to 3-2 with a 2.38 ERA.
"It felt good to work with that five-spot," Snell said.
Even the only downer to the day wound up brighter than initially feared.
For now, anyway.
Third baseman Jose Bautista's left ankle was sprained in the sixth inning, when he was thrown out at home plate by left fielder Willie Harris after tagging up on a Doumit flyout. Bautista stepped on the left shoe of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and the ankle rolled back in an ugly way.
He lay writhing in pain, as the crowd of 19,484 fell silent. But he was helped off three minutes later and, within a half-hour, was walking about the clubhouse in a soft boot-cast.
X-rays detected no fracture, and his status was listed as day to day. He will be examined again this afternoon, after which more should be known.
"It hurt a lot at the time, but it didn't feel too bad a couple minutes later," Bautista said. "I was worried about something worse than a sprain when it happened."
Bautista, in his first season as an everyday player, is batting .260 with two home runs and nine RBIs, and is playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.
"I took a deep breath," Tracy said of seeing Bautista go down.
Jose Castillo took Bautista's place at third base and likely will assume some starting infield duty -- second or third -- for as long as Bautista is out.
The Pirates avoided a three-game sweep and improved to 16-20.
(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com.)