Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Pirates didn't do anything at the trade deadline, but they didn't get worse

Things like NFL free agency and MLB's non-waiver trade deadline have become events, events that, well, if something doesn't happen for the home team, fans feel deflated.

I won't lie, I felt a little deflated when I turned on my car radio around 4:30 pm on Thursday to discover that the Pirates didn't acquire the services of Tampa ace David Price (I had already learned that Jon Lester would be leaving the Red Sox, but he would be going to Oakland--and not the neighborhood located in Pittsburgh, the city located in Northern California).

It's natural to want to see a result after days and days of speculation that usually accompanies baseball's trade deadline each and every late July.

My cousin texted me that he was "so frustrated." My brother texted me way too much for my tastes, telling me that the Pirates didn't get better, while the Cardinals, with their acquisitions of pitchers John Lackey and Justin Masterson; and the Brewers (the other NL Central team Pittsburgh will have to duke it out with down the stretch in 2014), with their acquisition of Gerardo Parra.......an outfielder with six home runs and 30 RBI, did.

Maybe St. Louis and Milwaukee did improve their respective squads with the pieces they added, but the Pirates didn't get worse simply by standing pat.

Whether it be hockey's or baseball's, I always find the trade deadline intriguing because we've become conditioned to think that if our team doesn't do something, it's a disservice to the fans.

Why is that?

If your team was good enough to make it to the trade deadline as a contender, why, suddenly, is it going to go downhill if no major moves are made?

The Pirates are still the same team that's 57-50 overall and 47-32 since early May (as of this writing).

Of course, our expectations rose over the past few days amid the rumors that Pittsburgh was suddenly a serious contender for Lester, and that a deal was believed to be imminent by many people "in the know."

But the Red Sox weren't just willing to accept a top prospect or two for Lester, a free agent at the end of the year who would be damn-near impossible for a team like the Pirates to sign to a long-term deal, they wanted a major league player........from a contending team.

You know who that major league player turned out to be? The A's Yoenis Cespedes, a 28 year old outfielder with 17 home runs and 67 RBI, and he won't be a free agent until after next season.

Now, the A's will be the team that will have no chance to re-sign Lester after this season, while Boston will certainly have the resources to lock up Cespedes AND maybe even Lester, who seemed to love playing with the Red Sox.

Can you imagine the Pirates parting ways with Starling Marte? If you can't, you shouldn't be crying that Lester didn't come to town, because there is no way he would have, otherwise.

And considering Marte is having a bit of a down year thanks to injuries, unlike Oakland, who also had to give up a draft pick, fellow outfielder Josh Bell or Austin Meadows may have also been part of a deal for Lester.

What about Pedro Alvarez? After all, he's having a down year. Forget the fact that he'll be in Pittsburgh until after the 2016 season and he hit 36 home runs last year (oh yeah, he's probably the only one in the organization with that kind of power), just throw him into a deal for Lester. After all, we gotta go for it!

It has been said that the only way for a team like the Pirates to acquire the services of a power hitter with the pedigree of an Alvarez would be to trade for him or draft him, which they did with the second overall pick in 2008.

Now that he's on the roster, you're just going to throw him into a deal for a rent-a-player simply because of a bad year?

If Alvarez can somehow get it together over these last two months, he would represent value that Pittsburgh simply couldn't bring back in any trade--at least from a hitting standpoint--and he could be the missing piece to the puzzle that gets the Pirates back to the postseason.

The A's did acquire outfielder Jonny Gomes, a 30something with only six home runs this year in the deal along with Lester, but how would that guy look in left field at PNC Park? Might as well just stick Travis Snider out there.

As for the trade of Rays' prized ace pitcher David Price to the Tigers for basically nothing note-worthy (Drew Smyly, a 25 year old starting pitcher who has made 17 starts and 23 year old infield prospect, Nick Franklin), I guess Pirates gm Neal Huntington doesn't have the fleecing chops of Detroit's gm because I'm sure had he been able to land Price, 28 and not a free agent until after next season, for, say, Jeff Locke and Jose Tabata, I'd like to think he would have driven both of them to Tampa himself.

In any event, the Pirates didn't get worse at the deadline, they just stayed the same. So far, that hasn't been too bad.

And if Gerrit Cole can also get it together down the stretch.................

Friday, March 21, 2014

Pitt finally beats a higher seed

The Pitt Men's basketball team achieved something in its second round NCAA tournament game on Thursday that it hadn't accomplished since 1981--a victory over a higher seed.

In fairness, it was only a victory over an eight seed, as the Panthers, seeded ninth in the South region, easily disposed of Colorado, 77-48, in a game that Pitt was favored to win by six points.

But for a program that hasn't had much to hang its hat on with regards to the Big Dance, at least it was something. And that 29 point victory also marked the largest tournament win in program history. (A fairly remarkable and surprising feat, when you consider the many high seeds the basketball program has enjoyed since I started following it back in 1987 as a 14 year old.)

The impressive win sets up a date with Florida Saturday afternoon at 12:15 ET. The Gators aren't just the number one seed in the South bracket, they're the number one seed, overall, so, obviously, Pitt will have its hands full.

Can the Panthers win? This remains to be seen, but they've been on the other side of this kind of equation many times over the years and failed.

Why not Pitt? Why not now?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Maybe we've been too hard on Pitt for its failure to reach the Final Four

Like a lot of Pitt basketball fans, I've had many dreams over the years of watching my favorite team cut down the nets in some gym somewhere after reaching the Promised Land of collegiate basketball--the Final Four.

 Unfortunately, despite making it to the NCAA Tournament in 11 of the previous 12 seasons, dating back to the 2001/2002 campaign, the closest the Panthers have come is the Elite 8, which they lost in agonizing fashion to Scottie Reynolds and Villanova.

 Speaking of which, the Wildcats obviously advanced to the Final Four after dispatching Pitt, and as it turns out, that occurrence wasn't exactly the exception to the rule.

 Six of the 11 teams that knocked the Panthers out of the tournament since 2002 actually went on to reach the Final Four.

 In 2003, behind future NBA legend Dwyane Wade, Marquette defeated the Panthers in the regional semi-finals before reaching the Final Four.

 A season later, Oklahoma St. did the exact same thing and then went on to defeat St. Joseph's in the regional finals to reach the Final Four.

 Three seasons later, Jamie Dixon's Panthers faced off against the team with the coach that resurrected the program in the early 00s--Ben Howland--who led his new team--UCLA--to the Final Four after knocking off his old team in the, you guessed it, regional semi-finals.

 Then there was the aforementioned agony in 2009.

 After that, came a loss to Butler in the round of 32 in 2011, which Pitt entered as a number one seed. Butler then went on to make its second straight appearance in the National Championship game (and suffer its second straight loss), falling to Connecticut.

 And finally, a season ago, the Panthers, a number eight seed, were simply dismantled by number nine seed Wichita St., who then went on to, again, you guessed it, reach the Final Four.

 Kind of amazing when you think about it. Maybe the Panthers just need to get a better draw.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pitt gets No. 9 seed and will face No. 8 Colorado on Thursday afternoon in Orlando

What a difference a Newkirk makes. It wasn't long ago that I, along with many other Panthers fans, expressed angst and worry that the team's chances of making the NCAA tournament were quickly dwindling away.

And there was good reason for such concern.

After starting the year 18-2, and after starting out 6-1 in its first year in the ACC, Pitt stumbled, starting with a bad home loss to the Blue Devils in late-January, and lost six of 10 games.

At 22-8, following an improbable home loss to NC State, the Panthers RPI was a very dreadful 53; for a team hoping for an at-large bid, that ranking didn't bode well.

With only one regular season game remaining at Clemson, it was time to put up or shut up. And just when it looked like Pitt would be shut up, once and for all, the team erased a five point deficit in the final 2.4 seconds and tied the game on a Josh Newkirk buzzer beater following a turnover by the Tigers while trying to inbound the basketball.

Pitt would go on to win, 83-78, in overtime, and the consensus was that it would be enough to secure the at-large bid.

I don't know if that was the case or not, but the Panthers put any remaining fears to rest by advancing to the semi-finals of their first ACC tournament after impressive victories over Wake Forest and North Carolina.

The latest RPI rankings had Pitt at 38, and true to form they earned the number nine seed in the South region and will face the eighth seeded Buffaloes of Colorado this Thursday afternoon in Orlando, Fla.

The Panthers have never defeated a higher seeded team in the NCAA tournament, so a win over Colorado would at least be a milestone moment for the program. Unfortunately, after that, it will most likely be a match-up against Florida, the number one over all seed, in its own backyard.

Seems like an impossible task, but the Panthers did almost knock off Syracuse twice and Virginia twice, so it wouldn't totally shock me if Pitt at least made a game of it against the Gators.

I guess we'll soon find out. At any rate, the Panthers are going dancing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The 2013/2014 Panthers Men's basketball team: defending and rebounding its way to the NIT

I haven't posted an entry in this blog for quite some time. It wasn't intentional, in the very least, but over the course of the summer, I picked up two more football writing gigs, which, added to my original football writing gig, gave me three football writing gigs.

For a man whose writing gigs don't really pay the bills, that's a lot of writing gigs.

Therefore, you'll have to excuse me for my prolonged absence from all things "Pittsburgh's Best Sports Blog."

However, I would like to rectify  that (if ever so briefly) by talking about the Pitt Panthers Men's basketball team.

For a sports lover like Yours truly, March is one of the most awesome times of the year. And it wasn't so long ago, when the Panthers were a very surprising 18-2 and 6-1 in their first year as a member of the ACC, that I took for granted being able to irrationally pick my favorite college basketball team to advance further in the NCAA Tournament than I had any right to.

Heading into their January 27 game against Duke at the Peterson Events Center, fans were discussing the possibility of the Panthers actually winning the regular season ACC title,with only highly ranked Syracuse (a fellow former member of the old Big East) standing in the way.

Unfortunately, the Blue Devils proved that talent trumps everything (yes, Coach Dixon, even rebounding and defense), as they pulled away from Pitt in what would be the beginning of a prolonged slump that has yet to see its end--and time is running out.

If you research the Panthers' offensive numbers, you'll see they've averaged 72.3 ppg (points per game), so far this season. However, that's a bit misleading. Over the past 10 games, dating back to that 80-65 loss to Duke in late January, Pitt has averaged  64.2 ppg and have lost six of 10.

During that span the Panthers also lost to Virginia, Syracuse and North Carolina (certainly no shame in losses to those teams, all ranked in the top 20). The real shame may come from the fact that Pitt needed overtime to beat a lowly Miami team, double overtime to beat an even lower Virginia Tech team and also didn't look very sharp in victories over Boston College and Notre Dame (also in OT).

And in addition to the four losses to the aforementioned ranked teams, the Panthers also lost recent home games to Florida State and NC State, two teams that aren't even on the NCAA bubble.

Speaking of the bubble, Pitt is now firmly entrenched on it. There are no wins against ranked teams on the season's resume, and as of this writing, the Panthers RPI--maybe the most important ranking in determining if and where a team will be seeded in the tournament--is 53.

With only one game remaining before the ACC tournament, things don't look good for Pitt. You would think a 22-8 record and a 10-7 conference mark would all but secure an at-large bid, but this is a bit of a down year for the ACC, and the Panthers have done very little to help  their cause.

Of course, this is a tired old song. I mentioned the 64.2 ppg over the past 10, but even that seems kind of high, considering how awful the Panthers offense has been at the end of games.

Head coach Jamie Dixon always preaches rebounding and defense, but just once, one time, I'd like to see him emphasize offense, and recruit top-end scorers into the program. Easier said than done, of course, as most of your top-notch scorers tend to go to the traditional powerhouses, which Pitt might actually be right now with the help of an appearance or two in the Final Four in previous years.

Most Panthers fans feel as if their team gets screwed most Selection Sundays (a claim that I certainly can't dispute, considering some of the questionable seeds in recent years), and this year, because of the above-mentioned statistics, the NIT might be all we have to hope for in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jim Leyland retires from baseball

If there was a Mt. Rushmore for important Pirates figures during the franchise's long and illustrious history, one could make a strong case for Jim Leyland, who managed the club from 1986-1996.

Leyland announced his retirement from baseball on Monday, and he left behind a legacy that included 1700 victories,  several postseason appearances, three World Series appearances, and a World Series victory in 1997 while managing the Florida Marlins.

As a Pirates fan, the legacy he left behind in Pittsburgh is the one I'd like to write about today.

Leyland was an unknown who coached under Tony LaRussa with the Chicago White Sox before being hired for the job in Pittsburgh.

Leyland spent 13 seasons in the minors and never even had a cup of coffee in the big leagues as a player, but his true calling was as a big league manager.

He took over a Pirates franchise that had just gone through the notorious baseball drug trials, had threatened to move to another city, had just gone through a high profile ownership change, and maybe more importantly, from a budding new manager's perspective, had just finished in last place the previous two seasons.

Long-gone were the glory days of the 70s, complete with a system from the majors to the minors that was stacked with talent, and in their place was an era where the Pirates were a laughing-stock, who lost over 100 games in 1985 and drew just 700,000 fans to old Three Rivers Stadium.

The talented players were few and far between, but thankfully, Syd Thrift, the Pirates gm from 1985-1988, and the man who actually hired Leyland, was fairly adept at player procurement and player development and soon would re-stock the organization with much-needed talent.

The Pirates would finish in last place again in 1986, but players such as future home run king Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and John Smiley were on the roster. And in 1987, just before the start of the season, Thrift traded the team's most popular player, catcher Tony Pena, to the Cardinals in exchange for outfielder Andy Van Slyke, catcher Mike Lavalliere and pitcher Mike Dunne. Van Slyke and Lavalliere would cement a core group of players that would resurrect the franchise and restore its once proud heritage.

Leyland was able to mold these players, like most athletes, diverse and often egotistical, into a cohesive unit.

In 1988, after three straight last place finishes and a tie for fourth place the year before, the Pirates actually clinched second place in the National League East, and Leyland cried like a baby. Some might laugh at such a response, but Leyland knew where the franchise had been and how close it had been to leaving town.

Two years later, in September of 1990, there were more tears of joy as the Pirates won their first division title in 11 seasons.

There would be two more division titles in ensuing seasons, along with those tears from Leyland, who admittedly, has always worn his emotions on his sleeves.

Whether he was crying about a watershed victory or chewing a player out for not performing well, there were no secrets about how Leyland was feeling.

In some specials I watched about the early 90s Pirates teams, Leyland's former players gushed over his communication skills. Bob Walk, a Pirates starting pitcher during the glory years of the early 90s and a current broadcaster for the team, said that regardless of Leyland's relationship with a player, that player always knew where he stood. I'm sure any athlete on the planet could appreciate that. Heck, anyone who has ever had a boss will tell you that, more than anything, they want to know where they stand.

A lot of people in Pittsburgh praise Leyland for a confrontation he had with Bonds in spring training of 1991, but Leyland has gone on record as saying he doesn't want that to be his legacy as manager of the Pirates.

According to Leyland, he had many disagreements with players over the years, and the one he had with Bonds just happened to be out in the open.

Speaking of Bonds, he certainly had a reputation as being quite difficult all throughout his major league career. However, he always showed great respect and admiration for Leyland, and if that doesn't speak volumes for the man, I don't know what does.

Former Pirates Jay Bell and Gary Redus have said that Leyland's ability to communicate and get the most out of his reserve players and his bullpen may have been his greatest attribute.

Finally, I mentioned Leyland's emotional side and how he would cry after important victories. During that special about the early 90s Pirates teams, Leyland, who at that point was managing the Tigers and 15 years removed from his days in Pittsburgh, got emotional when discussing things such as the 1990 division title and the depressing Game 7 loss in the 1992 NLCS.

Forget great manager. Jim Leyland is a great man.

Thanks for everything, Skipper.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pirates magical campaign: Part two

--Unlike 1992, when I practically needed a therapist to get me through the Pirates' Game 7 loss in the NLCS, I was over Pittsburgh's loss in the NLDS fairly quickly. I mean, I was disappointed for a night (when you spend a whole day "knowing" your team is going to win, it's a little hard to deal with when it doesn't happen), but, like a lot of Pirates fans who walked through the desert of losing baseball for two decades , it was hard to feel too disappointed. What the team gave its faithful this year was something that, quite honestly, I never thought I'd see again. And that's not hyperbole, it's a fact. I've been talking about the disparity between large and small market baseball teams for a reason, and that's because it's a big deal. It was a big enough deal that, if it hadn't been for the front office sticking to a true rebuilding plan and doing so aggressively, we may have never had a Game 5 loss to be sad about. Much kudos goes to majority owner Bob Nutting, team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington for the work they did over the past six seasons and the slings and arrows they had to put up with from the fans and media. I'm not saying a lot of those slings and arrows weren't justified (many were), but whatever wrongs there were in previous seasons, they were mostly righted once the current regime took over. It would have been easy to deviate from the plan in the face of public outrage, but there was never going to be a true championship-level baseball team in Pittsburgh again unless a true small market plan was adhered to. That's exactly what happened, and now the Pirates have an organization, from top to bottom, that's on the rise and probably won't be enduring much public outrage anytime soon.

--If the postseason taught me anything it's the importance of winning a division. Prior to 2012, when there was only one wild card team per league, if a team had a fairly sizable lead in the WC standings coming down the stretch, that team's manager could organize his pitching staff and have it aligned just the way he wanted it for the LDS. But after an extra team was added to the wild card mix in each league, which created a one game playoff, that changed the strategy substantially. Instead of one wild card team having its ace ready for Game 1 of an LDS, two wild card combatants were now forced to use their aces in the "single elimination game"--and rightfully so. If you don't win the wild card game, it won't matter how your pitching staff is aligned. Because the Cardinals won the National League Central over Pittsburgh, they had time to set their starting rotation for the NLDS, meaning ace Adam Wainwright got the nod in Game 1 and Game 5, while Pittsburgh was forced to use ace Francisco Liriano in the Wild Card round, which meant he was only available for Game 3 of the NLDS. Wainwright was masterful in Game 1, shutting the Pirates down in a 9-1 victory. Six days later, with the series tied at two games a piece, Pittsburgh was forced to choose between A.J. Burnett, an outstanding veteran pitcher but with terrible numbers at Busch Stadium, and rookie Gerrit Cole who was awesome down the stretch--including in the Pirates 7-1 victory in Game 2--but only had four months of major league experience. Cole got the nod and did a decent enough job in Game 5, only yielding three runs in five innings, but Wainwright is an ace for a reason, and he shut the Pirates hitters down, again, in a 6-1 complete came series clinching victory. Had Pittsburgh been able to outlast the Cardinals for the division title, the reverse would have happened and Wainwright would have been forced to pitch the Wild Card game, while Liriano would have pitched Games 1 and 5. Lance Lynn, who the Pirates had great success against in the regular season, only had to pitch one game of the NLDS, and it was the only game in which the Pirates batters had great success. Had Lynn been forced to pitch two games, the outcome could have been different. While it sucked for the Pirates purposes, kudos to MLB for strengthening the importance of winning a division.

--"Can the Pirates win again next season?" has been asked countless times since Wednesday. While it's certainly impossible to predict, I see no reason why they can't win again. Will they make the playoffs? Obviously, that's also impossible to predict. I do know one thing, though, Pittsburgh has a legitimate core group of guys on the roster. Like the Penguins in the NHL, the key for continued success is a core group of players. Heading into 2014, the Pirates will have Andrew McCutchen, the current favorite for NL MVP, Pedro Alvarez, the NL co-leader in home runs with 36, who added another three during the playoffs, Starling Marte, coming off his first full major league season, second baseman Neil Walker, catcher Russell Martin, and a pitching staff that will be deep and talented, regardless of what happens with the free agent Burnett. Like the Penguins have done each offseason since becoming true contenders, the Pirates face the prospects of losing several key role players this season, especially veteran right fielder Marlon Byrd, who they acquired in late August. But Pittsburgh still had a successful team prior to Byrd's arrival, and to me, that's why I'm so optimistic for the future. There will always be the Marlon Byrds of the world available at the trade deadline. The key for a gm is to find the right ones and pay the right price. Huntington did that with Byrd, and man was he exceptional. However, without that key core group of players, Byrd wouldn't have been nearly as valuable because he would have been a 36 year old outfielder on a team going nowhere. Right now, the prospects of Pittsburgh winning 94 games again seems rather daunting, but if the players are in place, 94 wins is more than possible, because that's what good baseball teams do.

--I was predicting all summer that the Pirates would kind of bring history back around again and duplicate what the Penguins did in 2008 by losing to a Detroit team in the championship round. Five years ago, the Penguins lost the Stanley Cup Finals to the Red Wings in six games, and I was hoping the Pirates would at least make it as far as the World Series this year before losing to the Tigers. Turns out I was still kind of right. The Red Wings were the class of the NHL back in 2008, winners of the Stanley Cup in '97, '98 and '02 and showed Pittsburgh's young hockey team what championship success looked like, by winning the Cup again at the old Civic Arena. The Cardinals have been the gold standard in the majors for many years, capturing eight division titles since 2000, appearing in three World Series since '04 and winning two since '06. The Pirates might have had St. Louis on the ropes after Game 3, but the Cardinals simply never blinked, and instead of wilting in the face of adversity, they shut Pittsburgh down over the final two games to advance to the NLCS. It's rare for a young team like the Pirates that isn't used to playing in the postseason to have a very successful run in its first year. The young and inexperienced Buccos may have been taught a valuable lesson by a St. Louis team that knows what it takes to win on baseball's biggest stage. It's a lesson that could pay dividends sooner rather than later--the '09 Pens came back and won the Stanley Cup by defeating Detroit in seven games.

--After Wednesday night's 6-1 loss in St. Louis, the Pirates have now scored a total of four runs in their last five games in which they had a chance to clinch a series, dating back to Game 6 of the 1991 NLCS--pretty interesting.

--Along those same lines, the Pirates' main weakness during the regular season was an offense that struggled with scoring runs and driving in runs with men in scoring position, and in the postseason, that caught up with them. Regardless of the sport, once the postseason rolls around, a team's weaknesses during the regular season will probably be exposed. I remember how awesome the 2001 Steelers were, as they rolled to a 13-3 regular season record and had the number one seed in the playoffs. But perhaps lost in the euphoria of such a great season was the team's deficiencies in special teams where Pittsburgh's unit gave up several kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns. Sure enough, in the divisional round against Baltimore, the Steelers gave up a punt return for a touchdown that made the game closer than it should have been. And then in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots scored three touchdowns, but two of them were on special teams plays--a punt return for a TD and a blocked field goal that was returned for a TD--and this proved to be the difference in a 24-17 loss.......I don't necessarily think the Pirates are a horrible hitting team. I just think their preparation and approach to hitting can be improved. During the course of the latter part of the season, after Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau were acquired for the stretch run, coaches and media types would go on and on about the two veterans and their "professional" approach to hitting. Maybe a more professional approach is what the Pirates young hitters need to take that next step--let's hope they learned a thing or two from the  two veteran rent-a-players, if their time in Pittsburgh was as brief as I suspect it might be.

--I can't tell you how excited I am about the young pitcher Cole, who was drafted number one overall in the 2011 baseball draft. Cole was fairly consistent all year long, once being called up in June, but down the stretch, after a bit of a tweak with his delivery, he was simply dominant. For as hard as he throws, many wondered why he didn't get that many strikeouts, but whatever change that was made to his delivery in early September (I'm no pitching coach) made all the difference, as Cole's K's picked up greatly. When Cole got the nod for Game 5, I didn't bat an eye because I think the kid is the real deal, and he might be something the Pirates haven't had in my lifetime, and maybe ever, an ace. And I'm not talking about an ace of the staff (every team has an "ace"), I'm talking about an ace of baseball, on par with a Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, etc., etc. If you ask any Pirates expert who the greatest pitchers are in team history, they'll rattle off a list, but most of the players on the list would be from between WWI and WWII. Over the past 40 years, other than Steve Blass, Doug Drabek and John Smiley, it's hard to find a Pirates starting pitcher that was even all-star caliber. Cole, with his 100 mph fastball, has a chance to be something special, and the kind of pitcher fans will actually come out to see.

That's all I have for now. The Pirates magical run was so awesome, I'm sure I'll be writing much more about it in the near future.

Let's Go Bucs!