I’ve made up my mind on the Pirates this year. Sort of.
Andrew McCutchen’s homecoming game, lo and behold, is on my fiancee’s and my proper birthday this year, and she and I agreed that would be a nice fun birthday thing for us to do together. Furthermore, they’re doing one of those Paint Monkey things before the game, which seemed like good, clean couples fun. Also, on Saturday, August 4th, they’re giving away an Andy Van Slyke bobblehead, and he was my favorite Pirate as a kid.
Those are two games this season that I will unabashedly attend, and, in the case of the McCutchen/Paint Monkey game, don’t mind giving the Pirates my money for as a one-off, as opposed to going through one of the third-party sites like I do commonly. The rest, I could take or leave until the organization shows more transparency and a more tangible commitment to winning.
I was one of the people willing to give upper management a chance after Clint Hurdle came and the culture changed, but between their dormant winters (sorry, one 11th-hour Corey Dickerson signing does not an exhaustive off-season make), their inability to maximize the value of the assets they’ve sold (i.e.: Cutch, Cole) and their senseless, passive-aggressive buck-passing to non-attendees, they’ve got a long road back to regain my respect.
For the record, I did watch some baseball on Easter Sunday and didn’t mind it all that much. I’m glad the Pirates swept Detroit, and I hope they continue winning and, ultimately, prove the lot of us wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with continuing to root strictly for the team on the field, because there are still 25 guys in that clubhouse killing themselves in good faith for the City of Pittsburgh, and they had nothing to do with the aforementioned buffoonery. And quite frankly, if you go back and listen to some of their comments prior to spring ball, clearly there are at least one or two who would express solidarity with us if they could.
So if you are one of the Pittsburghers who vowed a “Bucco boycott” this year, if not longer, at one time or another, and you still plan to go through with it, please know that you, like the players, have my unapologetic support. Even in the darkest days of the Dark Ages, PNC Park was the place to be in Pittsburgh on Opening Day, but it’s pretty obvious that fans have had enough of getting their stomachs punched and their intelligence insulted, and the fact the Pirates have been anticipating so many empty seats today is as encouraging to me as it is telling.
I want to “3elieve.” And a part of me still does. But my optimism is even more guarded than it was a year ago at this time, when we all knew they had to win sans Letang. History and common sense tell me, come Game 1 of Round One, to take the chances of a healthy, Mike Sullivan-coached Penguin team over those of the field seven days of the week out of seven. My eyes tell me I’m seeing the classic Bylsma-era trend of bad late-season habits exploitable in a seven-game series that get masked by short-term results.
Scoff if you want, but look at the teams they’ve lost to down the stretch, at times when the games still “meant something.” No, seriously. Look at them. Aside from that, the defense has been too feast-or-famine and wasn’t improved enough at the trade deadline after losing Ian Cole’s character and shot-blocking skills (albeit for the best available impact player on the market), the penalty kill is beneath itself, the goaltending has been consistently inconsistent and I’m getting a little tired of watching their point men run the power play with my hands half-covering my eyes. Right now, there’s just too much pressure on the Penguins to out-talent opponents, and they learned two coaching regimes ago that playoff hockey doesn’t work that way.
Again, I could easily be proven full of you-know-what starting a couple weeks from now. It could be as simple as, they’re tired and saving whatever gas is still in the tank for the playoffs. Two long seasons will do that to anybody, as will 18 back-to-backs, or whatever the number is–which is as absurd today as it was when the League dreamed it up last summer. And I can forgive Murray not looking like himself, knowing the trials and tribulations of concussion recovery, and taking into account the human tragedy he’s had to overcome this year–let’s not forget that, either. As for Letang, however, the honeymoon is over for me, neck injury or not. Sit him for these last couple games, now that the division is out of reach, and let him get more rested, get his head out of his rectum or both.
I’ve said time and again, when you have 87 and 71, you always have a chance, and few organizations in professional sports can flip a switch at the exact right time like this one. I just have a feeling the switch is going to be a little harder to flip this year.
Oh, and, speaking of my fiancee, I wasn’t going to until she gently talked me into it, but I ended up going to the Riverhounds home opener Saturday. Result aside, I wasn’t disappointed. One point is better than none, but, minimally, they should’ve gotten a 1- or 2-0 result. Saying that, I kept my eye on Bob Lilley, since I was sitting close enough to the Hounds bench to reasonably do so, and I liked what I saw a lot. He’s very intense, he’s an ABC guy (always be coaching) and when the Riverhounds, clear as day, should have been given a penalty roughly midway through the first half, he was all over the refs like a cheap suit, well past the halftime whistle.
I really think Lilley has a chance to do for the Riverhounds what Michel Therrien did for the Penguins at the dawn of the Crosby-Malkin era: be the human Molotov cocktail through the glass window of the establishment, and, in doing so, change the organizational culture for the better. He’s a straight shooter, like Therrien was, as evidenced by his postgame remarks, and he strikes me as the kind of guy who can inject some alpha-male, but also some structure and discipline, into the on-field product. The Penguins’ Renaissance started at the top. If the Riverhounds want to change, beyond merely their new, more avant garde branding, that has to start at the top, too.
I don’t care that the Riverhounds lucked their way into this guy, relying on the incredible misfortune of the now-defunct Rochester organization to find a licensed Division II-level coach, because the bottom line is, they had the wherewithal to go get the best free agent coach available when the getting was good. Furthermore, they weren’t shy about cleaning house, Kerr, Parkes and one or two others(?) notwithstanding, after a couple non-playoff years.
(Wasn’t I just saying something about organizations that show a commitment to winning?)
Perhaps it was to be expected that they still looked like a work in progress on Saturday. But I forgive that, because my instincts tell me “Lilleyball” will catch on eventually, for as long as the buy-in from his hand-picked players is there. They need time to find their form and develop chemistry, which doesn’t happen after two matches. They also need forwards who can finish, but I digress.
In the meantime, as an RMU employee, I can’t wait until Neco vs. Speedy Sept. 15.
Okay, that was harsh. Tantamount, dare I say, to Will Ferrell’s capricious face-slapping of self-deprecating Jay “Scootsie Doubleday” Phillips–and I apologize in the same haste as Jackie Moon.
One of the most important lessons I have learned not just from my time spent in “big boy” radio, but also at other jobs that utilized my skills in communications and customer service, is that sometimes you just need to let people vent. As one of Pittsburgh’s neurotic, bed-wetting baseball fans, I’m just venting.
I know darn well, as should the rest of the Pirates’ alleged “lost generation,” how lucky we have been to have Andrew McCutchen. Cutch has been the face of our franchise and its brief return to respectability, and, even if not the game’s best overall player, arguably, the face of everything “good” about it.
I don’t hate Andrew McCutchen. What I really hate is @TheCUTCH22’s catch-22.
Because the Pirates have as much chance coming out of it smelling like a rose as the Tropics had of attaining NBA membership.
Part of me wishes we had been put out of our misery over the winter, when the business decision seemed inevitable. That would have given us all more time to get over it (not that we ever totally would), and there’s no telling what kind of haul the Pirates could have gotten. McCutchen, by all accounts, was not without interested parties, most notably a Nationals front office that had already been fleeced for Felipe Rivero and highly-touted Taylor Hearn.
The other part of me is grateful the Pirates front office, in true Pirates front office fashion, stumbled awkwardly through that whole situation and was “stuck” with McCutchen, lest Washington stick us with the same washing machine that brought Ed Monix to Flint. For all my closeted fandom, which saw my Bucco Fever plummet toward a pre-Hurdle temperature in concurrence with Cutch’s decline, no one was happier to see an 1,100-watt light bulb go on for the reigning National League Player of the Month than I. Even in his worst times on the field, Cutch has given us nothing but his personal best off it.
That’s the Andrew McCutchen I’ll always know and cherish. But can the Andrew McCutchen we cherish be had for much longer? No matter the name on the back of the jersey, a defensively suspect superstar on the wrong side of 30 who looked lost offensively until that summer surge may never again be as valuable to the name on the front as he is right now.
The Pirates entered the second half down, but not out of the ongoing NL Central rock fight, and if only they were, the decision whether or not to trade him would be cut-and-dry. If they just did the Pirate thing, finished getting their butts kicked and left us looking for what we have to work with in the next decade of the five-year plan, it would be so painfully easy to say, “Thanks for the memories, now time to re-calibrate the franchise [in under two decades, we hope].” Instead, the Pirates, like the emotional state of their fans, are between John Wehner and a hard place.
Even if the Pirates trade Andrew McCutchen in a deal that makes perfect baseball sense, their front office will be eviscerated. That’s what happens when 20 years of historic futility leave scars that never completely heal. If they don’t, their window of opportunity to get the most in return for their most attractive big-league bargaining chip likely closes, and they’re reviled for different reasons.
Intent is one thing, and impact is quite another. No team can ever completely control the paranoia of its own fan base, but the Pirates have brought a lot of that paranoia upon themselves.
Several years ago, when their current front office was still very much in the midst of cleaning up Kevin McClatchy’s mess, it is believed that Ron Burkle, Mario Lemieux’s very rich and very reclusive business partner, offered, on his own volition, to take that mess off Nutting’s hands. Burkle has never admitted to anything of the sort, nor did he when given the chance by Post-Gazette writer Dave Molinari in a one-time-only interview that is a phenomenal read nevertheless.
Around here, night-and-day comparisons between Pirates and Penguins management are like that shady character in your apartment building who keeps pulling the fire alarm; eventually, even if justified, you just start tuning them out. Burkle, like Nutting, tries to be as hands-off as he can, within reason. To distinguish the former from the latter, however, look no further than the eyebrow-raising 2008 trade that brought Marian Hossa to the Pens.
Then-president Ken Sawyer had contrived a five-year plan (sound familiar?) to build the Penguins into a championship-caliber outfit, not to mention a fiscally strong one, by the time they moved across the street and into the building initially known as CONSOL Energy Center–a building that would not have come to fruition without Burkle’s input, politically and financially.
“Didn’t the Soviets have a five-year plan?” Burkle quipped to his fellow decision-makers, according to local author and Tribune-Review reporter Andrew Conte, upon learning this.
All he needed to make up his mind was a simple answer to a simple question:
Can we win now?
When GM Ray Shero answered in the affirmative, Burkle green-lit additional payroll without batting an eye. Neither the Penguins nor the rest of the NHL would ever be the same.
Even though they didn’t get that elusive championship until the following spring (and, poetically, at job-jumping Hossa’s expense), the trade was nonetheless significant, as Molinari noted. By spending on an impact player who factored into a lengthy playoff run, Ron Burkle showed the same tangible commitment to winning for which Pirate fans have clamored until their fingers are blistered and their vocal chords bloody.
His take on why he endorsed the deal, as told to the P-G, is even more telling:
Burkle’s commitment wasn’t the only difference, either. Shero’s willingness to live in the moment helped make the Pens a bona fide Stanley Cup challenger.
Giving up high draft picks was one thing, but he really turned heads by trading Colby Armstrong, one of the team’s most popular players and one who meshed well with the face of their own franchise, Sidney Crosby, to complete that trade deadline transaction. Furthermore, his visionary acquisition of Hossa’s teammate, Pascal Dupuis, considered merely ribbon on the package at the time, paid even richer dividends in future seasons.
Meanwhile, the Pirates couldn’t get out of their own way–but, after that third Cup, neither could the Penguins. One team had a GM who would rather die than part with prospects. The other had a GM who would rather die than play them. Each team struggled in the playoffs, with Shero getting fired after a string of premature postseason exits, because neither sought middle ground.
That’s how the Cubs won the World Series. And no, I still can’t believe I’m typing that. It’s the ultimate cosmic joke to wait most of your adult life to see your favorite pro baseball organization finally become a stable one, only to be one-upped by an organization that did it bigger, better and light years faster–and one with an even more historically aggrieved fan base, at least with respect to championships. Theo Epstein built a team that was a perfect mix of young and old.
Jim Rutherford, as Shero’s successor, has done the same for the Penguins (you know, the team that held the 3-1 series lead) en route to back-to-back championships. Since then, Epstein has tried to spark a second-half resurgence toward a second straight title of his own by trading prospects to the neighboring White Sox for promising young pitcher Jose Quintana–a rumored Pirate target for some time.
It is inarguable that Neal Huntington understands the importance of drafting, developing, rinsing and repeating, especially for small-market teams in Major League Baseball. The Pirates, during his tenure, have consistently gone after the consensus best players in the draft regardless of signability, which was not always the case in Pittsburgh. That’s how they got Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. That’s how they “Pirated” Josh Bell out from under the noses of 29 other teams that believed he wouldn’t sign at all.
The problem is, Huntington hasn’t found the magic-bullet prospects his peers have–Bryant, Judge, Harper, and so on. I’d like to be able to say that those closest to it, like Bell, for example, were a little more expendable when the Pirates were a little more relevant, and thus, movable in the kind of trade that could put a pretender on the contenders’ side of the line. But you’d never know by the way the organization has hoarded them. While Epstein wants balance, Huntington wants to have it both ways.
The biggest difference between Pittsburgh and Chicago used to be that, over there, North Siders blamed jinxes, curses, farm animals and ball-hawking nerds with Walkmen, while, on our North Side, we blame a quarter-century of general incompetence. (If you’re a true Pittsburgh sports devotee, you should know by now we do things the hard way.) Now the difference is that the Cubs want to be able to sell more World Series tickets, and the Pirates want to be able to sell more hope.
It wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always like this. When the Pirates finally broke The Streak, I was much readier to keep an open mind about Nutting and his minions. Their hand-picked field manager had re-energized the club and city, their draft classes were bearing fruit and, around that particular trade deadline, they actually made solid, low-risk/high-reward moves for players who were widely deemed upgrades to the team.
But then they ruined it. They killed their momentum faster than a bases-loaded rally with complacency. Their actions–or, more accurately, their inaction–the next two years, both of which ended in embarrassing playoff losses at home, told fans they were perfectly content to treat the postseason like a dice toss, with the unsatisfactory return in the Neil Walker trade being the tip of the pathetic-berg.
Apparently, not even that 98-win squad of 2015, which was elite, fun to watch and closer to being a World Series threat than any Pirate team since–gulp–Barry Bonds’ heyday, was worthy of substantial in-season or off-season improvement. The Battlin’ Bucs became the Just-Happy-to-be-There Bucs and haven’t been close to their optimal on-field selves since, leaving us to wonder when our agony will turn back into ecstasy…a-a-a-a-a-and cue the paranoia!
Championships are rare, anything but a birthright–yes, even in the City of Champions. Winning them isn’t just about having the right talent; it’s also about drawing the right matchups. The Pirates, with characteristic misfortune, ran into a superior St. Louis team, followed by a pair of historically hot pitchers. Plus, in the bigger picture, embarrassing playoff losses at PNC Park are still a notch above every embarrassing Pirate loss 1993-2012.
But isn’t it possible, with the window of opportunity open, that the Pirates front office could have done more? Isn’t it possible that they could have better equipped themselves to offset those bad matchups, had that front office been less wary of losing some kid in Altoona, Bradenton or God knows where else who might be the key ingredient to a 2020 pennant race?
How cool would Giancarlo Stanton have looked in a Pirate uniform a few years ago, even if just for a few months? How cool would David Price have looked in Seventies Sunday throwbacks on a team chasing a division title?
I’m not even affirming or denying that either scenario was ever remotely possible. I’m merely trying to illustrate that, although the Pirates, under Frank Coonelly’s self-proclaimed BMT (Best Management Team™), have enjoyed their longest period of sustained success since the early ’90s, they, unlike the Penguins, still haven’t been willing enough to occasionally deviate from “the plan” to achieve said plan’s purpose.
Both organizations have promised us, in so many words, that they won’t live in their fears. Guess whose promise has actually been delivered?
Yep, still a Stanley Cup champion–and just over two years removed from his acquisition by Rutherford, at that.
The Phil Kessel trade was controversial not only because he had been such a miscast player in Toronto, but also because among the departed was the Penguins’ top draft pick, Kasperi Kapanen, during a period of intense scrutiny of the Pens’ farm system and its lack of matriculated forwards. It’s immaterial now. If Kapanen has a long career with the Leafs, so be it. GMJR already got what he wanted, and the Penguins got what they wanted while still getting valuable contributions from other rookies.
When they are referred to as a budding dynasty, people smile and nod. (Chicagoans know what that’s like, too.) When Coonelly, not long after the Penguins’ 2009 title, said the Pirates were building one, then tried to backpedal on it like McCutchen tracking a long fly ball, people pointed and giggled. It shouldn’t be a challenge for any of us to surmise why, even though things on 115 Federal Street did, on a smaller scale, get better eventually.
It shouldn’t be a urinating contest between the fan bases, either. We’re all Pittsburghers. Deep down, we should know a rising tide floats all boats, including the rudderless ship the Pirates were on when Bob Nutting got behind the wheel. Pittsburgh benefits, economically and emotionally, when the Steelers do well. It benefits just the same when the Penguins do well. When the Pirates actually sold us substantial hope in 2013, the North Shore was a circus. And it was awesome.
I want to love them just as badly as I love the Penguins. The Pens have simply done more to commensurate my faith, starting with Burkle, who, without hesitation, has paid any price, anytime, for anything he is convinced can make his product better.
I want to trust Nutting. I’ve stopped thinking he’s the Ebenezer Scrooge everyone else thinks he is. He has presided over some winning baseball, his farm system is in incontrovertibly better shape than it was under McClatchy’s lackeys and he’s locked up key players with lucrative, yet team-friendly contracts. I fiercely agree, however, that he has not done everything he could to make the Pirates competitive.
I want to hear his explanation for two dormant winters, a 20-game drop in the final standings sandwiched between them and why the Pirates, despite constant payroll hikes, still lag in that category behind teams that spend and win. I need to hear straight from the horse, the next time another article about his and/or his franchise’s “real” worth is published, why I shouldn’t believe the narrative that he could do more but chooses not to.
I want to believe the Bucs are goin’ all the way, someday. I do believe they want to, but only on their terms. I don’t believe they will with their stubborn consistency of approach, unless the right batch of teams suffers a simultaneous, historic, Penguinesque rash of injuries at the right time, and they accident their way into it.
If Nutting ever did meet Burkle, what would he think? What would it mean to the Pirates, not necessarily to have a new owner, but just to have an additional investor? One who can take pressure off the owner? One who has more money than the Vatican and doesn’t spend it with nearly the same degree of caution? Why wouldn’t Burkle be good enough to join the BMT™?
Maybe, just maybe, with a little help from Burkle, or Mario, or Mark Cuban, or the Rooneys, or, literally, any other person of fortune with Pittsburgh ties who mirrors Burkle’s fondness for sports, his empathy with the little guy and his consider-it-done spirit, things like the Cutch conundrum could be avoided?
Respecting his wish to remain a Pirate for at least the rest of this season seems to be the least damaging course of action on and off the field, even if McCutchen cools off and goes into a late-season swoon. But if he wants another, bigger payday, it won’t happen here. History corroborates me there.
No matter what happens, or doesn’t, when seeking shelter from the smoldering hot takes, head for that middle ground. There isn’t much of it anymore when we talk about the Pirates, which is sad, because that’s where truth is usually found–all the more reason I’ve tried speaking about them with prolonged tact.
The Pirates could conceivably put a winning, contending team on the field without Andrew McCutchen someday, maybe even in the foreseeable future. When McCutchen was league MVP and in his approximate prime, that was unimaginable.
In a sane world, Cutch could be packaged in a deal that makes perfect baseball sense, and Pirate fans would understand. As Pirate fans, our world is not sane.
If it were, next time his phone rang and displayed a Beverly Hills area code, Mr. Nutting would pick up.
I’m in the camp that believes Mike Sullivan’s sample size isn’t big enough to indicate how well he will do on the Penguins bench. I don’t believe he will do worse than Mike Johnston did with what he was given to work with, because very few English-speaking adult males could. The Pens will officially hit the midpoint of their regular season Saturday in Montreal, and I expect them to have a big second half simply because they can.
Let’s clarify that for a second. I sure as heck don’t expect a Cup this year–not that I expected one to begin with. Their defense will still let them down, and the sport will still be strategized and policed in a manner that the Penguins’ stars will not have room to play to their true potential. The 2008-09 Penguins, the last ones to win it all, were one of the greatest examples of a switch being flipped in NHL history, trumped only by the 1991-92 Penguins. The current state of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the result of multi-layered failure by many people, not all of whom work for the Pittsburgh Penguins, at many times. Sullivan is a hockey coach, not a miracle worker.
History won’t be made, but signs of a turnaround are already present. Evgeni Malkin has risen above team- and league-wide scoring woes and has become quite the leader. Sidney Crosby is finally starting to look like his old, dangerous self. Players have stood up for each other, or, in Kris Letang’s recent case, for themselves. The power play is coming around, and the offense, in general, has played more purposefully under the new boss. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Fleury, in a sane world, would be a Vezina Trophy and perhaps long-shot league MVP candidate right now.
The gap between the haves and have-nots in the NHL is not as big as it once was, but the gap between the Pens and playoff contention is even smaller–one point entering this weekend, to be precise. Sullivan can’t completely change the DNA of that locker room in less than a year, but his team will play well enough to offset the madness of the first half.
2. The Panthers Will Make More Strides Under Pat Narduzzi –
Had Paul Chryst stayed for a fourth season at Pitt, 2015 would have been a make-or-break year for him. The Panthers would have had to show tangible progress under his watch, or else Steve Pederson, or whomever the athletic director would have been in that alternate universe, would have had a very tough decision to make this offseason. Would a fourth year of Chryst on the Pitt sideline have been successful? Would the decision-maker have made the right decision? Fortunately, we never had to find out.
This approaching season, Pitt football, for the first time since the Dave Wannstedt era, and just the second time since its quarterback was the official spokesman for Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza (cha-ching!), will win ten games. This will be achieved with a 9-3 regular season and a victory in an ACC “Tier One” bowl game. And for the first time since we Feared the ‘Stache, the Panthers will show tangible progress.
It’s funny how we hardly ever hear anymore how much Pitt fans, closet and otherwise, miss Wannstedt, isn’t it? Never mind that he couldn’t beat Navy with four cracks at Heinz Field’s south end zone from one yard out, NFL talent on his offensive line, and a future NFL tailback running through holes all night long that the entirety of Section 132 could have penetrated–and that’s the tip of his iceberg. As bad as things used to be around here, what in blue-and-gold hell made those people think that same guy could have kept up with the Clemsons and Florida States of the world, let alone the version of Navy Narduzzi had to prepare his team for?
Okay, so maybe we shouldn’t break our arms patting the Nard-Dog on the back for an 8-5 season that included rocky home losses to quality opponents and a disappointing showing in the Military Bowl against another quality opponent. But let’s not kid ourselves: anyone who can’t see the difference between Chryst and Narduzzi hasn’t been paying attention. Unheralded players became stars. Talk of the “process” of winning turned into talk of winning, period. Defensively, the Panthers were liberated, ditto on offense, where Narduzzi took chances that Chryst would not–and quite frankly, he and erstwhile OC Jim Chaney probably should have taken more. Pitt showed toughness in tenuous games it hadn’t shown previously.
Chryst would have been scuffling just to get to .500 with the 2015 Panthers, and might not have made it. Narduzzi will have the 2016 Panthers in serious contention for the Coastal Division crown that will only turn more serious when James Conner makes his triumphant return.
Pitt has legitimate depth behind Conner in its backfield. It has an offensive line that can protect Nate Peterman, who gets one more year to prove himself while Narduzzi grooms his other QBs and prays, along with the rest of us, that Thomas MacVittie is the Chosen One Pitt has sought for years at that position. It has a defense that is now, at the very least, well coached, if not yet well peopled, at every spot. And although Tyler Boyd is a virtually impossible act to follow, the sum of Pitt’s remaining parts can certainly fill that hole. In addition, it has a manageable home schedule (e.g.: Villanova, Syracuse, Virginia Tech) that mitigates a less forgiving road schedule (e.g.: Oklahoma State, Clemson).
When put in perspective, it’s easy to call the 2015 season a success for Pitt. It won’t be easy to call the 2016 season a success without Conner kicking cancer and the Panthers kicking Penn State’s butt, among others. Plan accordingly, because both are going to happen.
3. The Riverhounds Will Beat an MLS Team in the U.S. Open Cup –
Back in June, when the Hounds hosted D.C. United, a Supporters’ Shield challenger at the time, there were times when it looked like this prediction might come to fruition a year early. Pittsburgh didn’t play well at all after forcing extra time, but even extra time was not without its chances.
Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, the two best players from that team (Vincent, reportedly, even got a look from United scouts), are officially back for 2016, as is stalwart goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap for a second tour of duty. In addition, head coach Mark Steffens, whose team is coming off just its second USL playoff berth ever, has added pieces up front with a little bit of MLS experience, Corey Hertzog and Zak Boggs from the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies (the team they beat for the right to play D.C.), and seems intent on revamping his defense.
Domestic cups are a big deal in pro soccer internationally. In America, to an MLS side, it’s more tantamount to college basketball’s NIT. Teams want to use the opportunity to give their youngsters a look and focus their energies on winning the MLS Cup.
For soccer in Pittsburgh, however, that game against DCU meant more than the minutiae of the game itself. It showed in the work ethic of the Riverhounds that night.
They haven’t upset an MLS team in the Open Cup since Colorado Rapids were ambushed at Bethel Park High School in 2001. The time is right to catch one of them napping.
4. The Pirates Will Win a Playoff Game –
Interpret that however you wish. If you’re a Pirate fan, this winter has been an underwhelming one, but winning winter means nothing–just ask the Washington Nationals. Nevertheless, this management team, still haunted by the proverbial sins of the father, probably doesn’t get enough credit for stabilizing the organization and putting an exciting product on the field despite notable instances of roster attrition in recent years, the latest and most notable being Neil Walker.
Unlike most of the yinzer front-runners, I’m not yet ready to pick up my pitchfork over the Walker trade until I see what Ray Searage, the best pitching coach in the majors, can do with Jon Niese, one of his new projects. More to the point, I wholly expect Alen Hanson to thrive as the eventual everyday second baseman when J-Hay isn’t doing his best Lee Lacy impression. In time, he will make those righteously indignant fans forget Walker the same way Andrew McCutchen made them forget Nate McLouth.
Would I like to see the Pirates swim against their own stream more often for the sake of acquiring impact players? Absolutely, especially if it means bringing in a (natural) first baseman that we’ve, you know, actually heard of. Inevitably, they’ll have to swallow their organizational pride in order to get what they want, as the Kansas City Royals’ front office can attest. In any event, with this mostly intact offense and its usual brand of consistently consistent pitching, plus a healthy Jung-Ho Kang, this team will still be fun to watch.
You can’t pick your division. You can only worry about beating the teams in it. Economically, the Pirates are never going to have a fair fight with the Cardinals or Cubs, and there’s no guarantee they’ll finish ahead of either this year. But with the Royals winning a championship and the Cubs cementing themselves as a sexy 2016 World Series pick, it’s time for the next-most put-upon fanbase in baseball to get a little good postseason karma thrown its way for a change–even if it’s just a harried pitcher dropping the ball (literally, if possible) for one magical night.
5. The Bengals Will (Finally) Win a Playoff Game –
I’m less of a believer in jinxes, curses or what-have-you than ever before. The Pirates’ renaissance had a lot to do with that. I believe in good football, bad football and mediocre football. But a lot of other people think the hex hanging over sports in Ohio* (*Non-Buckeyes only) will stay put Saturday night.
Speaking of the Pirates, it strikes me that Marvin Lewis is to Cincinnati what Jim Leyland was to Pittsburgh–too anal retentive for his own good when the stakes are raised. He is as big a reason as any that the Who-Deys are staring a quarter-century of postseason futility in the face. Too bad that, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, Mike Tomlin, a Super Bowl-winning coach who some feel rode the coattails of the last Super Bowl-winning coach, has his own demons to exorcise.
Since Tomlin lost that Wild Card game four years ago to Tim Tebow–I repeat, Tim Tebow–he has been, by Steeler standards, an adequate coach at best. Too often the Steelers have been held back by his own hubris, not unlike how the Penguins were held back at the same time by Dan Bylsma’s. Too often they have looked too unprepared to win winnable games, not unlike Saturday’s.
The Bengals may not have Andy Dalton, but they still have A.J. Green ready to line up against a secondary that could be charitably described as suspect. They don’t have anything resembling a running game to worry about when the Steelers have the ball, and we saw how well that worked out in last year’s Wild Card round when the Steelers tried to bleed offense from Ben Tate. Furthermore, the Ben who really matters has been turnover-prone lately, and he already did everything in his power to hand one game to the Bengals on a silver platter. Never put it past history to repeat.
Credit the Steelers for not giving up. They handled their business in Cleveland and accidented their way into this thing because the Browns are still the Browns, and the Jets are still the Jets. Granted, the Bengals are still the Bengals, but the Bengals are also due, and you might as well throw a dart to determine which version of the Steelers will show up at a given time. I could very easily see Cincinnati winning 17-13, which, of course, could only mean one thing: