El Toro Walks It Off for Buccos; Four Pirates Named to All-Star Game

Things might be awkward between Pedro Alvarez and his father-in-law during the next family visit. The Pirates (48-34) defeated the San Diego Padres, managed by Pedro’s father-in-law, in walk-off fashion on a 2-out RBI-single by Alvarez. It was an event-filled night at PNC Park, and any time Jerry Meals is one of the four umpires in a Pirates game, things tend to get just a little interesting. With a tie game at 1-1 in the eighth inning, A.J. Burnett appeared to strike out Derek Norris swinging to end the inning, but home plate umpire Paul Emmel motioned that Norris tipped the pitch. After allowing another base hit, Burnett’s night was done, leaving the 23,000-plus fans irate at the umpiring crew. Tony Watson came in and struck out Matt Kemp to end the inning, setting the scene for Pedro to walk-off just an inning later.

Just before first pitch tonight at PNC Park, four Pirates found out they were selected to the National League All-Star team. Andrew McCutchen was named to his fith All-Star Game, as a starter in place of injured Marlins slugger, Giancarlo Stanton. Mark Melancon was named to his second All-Star game, and Gerrit Cole, the Major League-leader in wins, was named to his first. Also named to his first All-Star game in his 17-year career was tonight’s starter, A.J. Burnett.

Burnett showed tonight how deserving he is of the selection, battling with San Diego’s James Shields throughout most of the night. Burnett allowed his only earned run of the night on an Amarista sac-fly in the 2nd inning, but Burnett was dominant the rest of the way until the debacle in the eighth inning. He finished with a line of 7.2 innings pitched, 5 hits, 1 ER, 4 strikeouts, and 3 walks, lowering his season ERA to 1.99. Shields was arguable even more dominant for the Padres, but allowed an unearned run in the bottom of the 7th when Pedro Alvarez hit a sharp ground ball towards third baseman Yangervis Solarte, which he snagged on a dive, but threw away at first base, allowing McCutchen to score the Pirates first run. McCutchen extended his hitting streak to 13 games tonight on a double earlier in the inning.

The Pirates and Padres play game 2 of this 3-game series tomorrow night at 7:05 ET. Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano (5-6, 2.99 ERA) will face off against San Diego’s Tyson Ross (5-7, 3.63 ERA).

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Buccos Ride the Cole Train; Offense Has Big Fifth-Inning

The Pirates (47-34) won the rubber match of a 3-game set with Cleveland on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at PNC Park with a score of 5-3. The day was highlighted by a 5-run 5th inning offensive explosion that was enough to sustain a lead until the final out was recorded. Gerrit Cole captured his league-leading 12th win on the afternoon, pitching eight strong innings and Mark Melancon recorded his 27th save of the year. PNC Park was the place to be this weekend as the ballpark had a combined attendance of 113,580 fans over the 3-game weekend series.

Gerrit Cole (12-3, 2.28 ERA) struggled early in the game, allowing 3 earned runs in the first 3 innings. He settled down after the Michael Brantley RBI-single in the 3rd inning, retiring the final 16 batters he faced. The line on Cole was 8 innings, 5 hits, 3 ER, 5 strikeouts, and 1 walk on 106 pitches. Cole’s ability to bounce back from a rough start has shown why he has been one of the most successful pitchers in the Major Leagues, and possibly furthering his cause to make the National League All-Star team.

The offense had Cole’s back again, scoring all 5 runs in the game in the bottom of the 5th inning. Jung Ho Kang led off with a single, then Pedro Alvarez put one in the seats near the north side notch in left-center field, his 12th home run on the year. Jordy Mercer flew out, Chris Stewart reached on an infield hit that was overturned by a Pirates challenge, Gerrit Cole moved Stewart to 2nd base on a sacrifice bunt, then Josh Harrison reached on an infield single of his own. Neil Walker tied the game on an RBI-single, then on the very next pitch. Andrew McCutchen nearly hit one in the Cleveland bullpen in center field. It bounced off the wall and two more runs came across to give the Pirates the 5-3 lead they would hold on to.

Mark Melancon continues to dominate as the closer, notching his NL-leading 27th save. After blowing his 2nd save opportunity early in the year, he has recorded 26 straight saves, putting his name as a candidate for the NL All-Star team. Melancon’s consistency has played a large role in the Pirates’ success this season.

PIRATES NOTES
Cutch misses out: 
The National League All-Star starters were announced Sunday night and Andrew McCutchen was left off of the starting roster. He finished 5th in the voting for the outfield spots, behind starters Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Holliday, and 4th place Nori Aoki. There’s a very good chance he can make it as a reserve, maybe even as a starter due to the injuries to Stanton and Holliday. Stanton is definitely out, but Matt Holliday could possibly be ready to play in the game. Only time will tell. The reserves, pitchers, and Final Vote candidates will be announced tomorrow evening at 7 p.m.

Welcome back Travis!: No, not Travis Snider, but Travis Ishikawa. The Pirates claimed the 31 year-old first-baseman off waivers from the Giants on Sunday afternoon. No roster move has been made yet to make room for Ishikawa, but that should be happening before the Buccos’ next game.

Marte leaves early: Starling Marte left Sunday’s game after fouling off a pitch in the 4th inning. He swung and missed at two pitches in the at-bat, showing some discomfort in his side afterward. Manager Clint Hurdle and a trainer came out and had a chat, but left him in the game. He then fouled off a pitch then took a ball while still showing discomfort, prompting Hurdle to pull Marte from the game. Gregory Polanco finished the game in Marte’s spot. Marte will be evaluated tomorrow.

Pirates Recap: Buccos Sweep Tigers; Gain Ground on Cards

The Pittsburgh Pirates (45-33) completed the sweep of the Detroit Tigers Thursday afternoon with a score of 8-4. Neil Walker, once again, highlighted the box score. He was 4 for 5 on the day while driving in 3 runs, 2 of them on a 2-run double in the top of the 9th to provide insurance. Francisco Liriano hurled a gem today with 7 shutout innings, striking out 5 batters and walking 3. Manager Clint Hurdle handed the ball to the bullpen to secure the final six outs, but they made it more interesting than it needed to be. Antonio Bastardo struggle to get out of the 8th inning by allowing 3 men to score, nearly giving up a 4-0 lead. Tony Watson came in a recorded the final out of the 8th. The Pirates answered in the 9th, scoring four runs on a McCutchen RBI double, Walker’s 2-run double, and a Sean Rodriguez RBI groundout. Vance Worley also struggled to close out the game in the 9th allowing 3 runs (2 unearned). Mark Melancon came in to get the final out, recording his 25th save of the season. The Cardinals dropped their third straight game to the San Diego Padres with a score of 5-3 in 11 innings, bringing the Pirates to within 6 games back in the NL Central.

The Pirates offense showed up again today after racking up 21 hits in the previous game. Francisco Cervelli hit a solo home run in the 4th inning. The Buccos tallied one more run in each of the next 3 innings on a McCutchen sacrifice fly in the 5th, a Neil Walker RBI single in the 6th, and a Starling Marte RBI single in the 7th. Walker continues to rake at Comerica Park, upping his career average at the Tigers ballpark to a whopping .490.

Liriano’s 7 shutout innings brought his season ERA down to 2.99 and improved his record to 5-6.

The Pirates return to PNC Park to begin a 10 game home stand before the All-Star Break. They have two 3-game series with Cleveland and San Diego, then a pivotal 4-game series with the division-leading Cardinals.

Charlie Morton (6-1, 4.28 ERA) takes on Cleveland right-hander Trevor Bauer (6-5, 3.96 ERA) tomorrow night at 7:05 ET.

Steelers Interested in Hosting Super Bowl LVII in 2023

The Steelers are eyeing another Super Bowl – this time as a host. They have officially filed an application to host the Super Bowl 8 years from now. It’s an interesting play by the Steelers here, and it gives reason for the city of Pittsburgh to be excited. This is the very beginning of a long process. We won’t know who will win the bid for Super Bowl LVII until 2019, and Steelers President Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that they are not certain if they will actually make a bid. If they do, there are many factors to consider; two of which could be road blocks to keep Pittsburgh from hosting the Super Bowl.

Cold-weather factor: The NFL has already had a Super Bowl in a cold weather city. It went pretty much without incident, at least with the weather (I can’t speak for the thrashing of the Broncos). It was a modest 50 degrees, which is very mild for the New York/New Jersey area for the first week of February. Minnesota is hosting Super Bowl LII in 2018, but their new stadium will have a translucent roof, so the only thing the weather will affect is the traffic and Super Bowl week festivities. The chances of Pittsburgh having mild weather in the first week of February is not very likely. Even if it doesn’t snow, the temperature will more than likely be a factor. The NFL did know the risk when they awarded New York with Super Bowl XLVIII, but they were criticized by many for giving a cold-weather city the privilege to host a Super Bowl. This may cast some doubt into the minds of voters to give Pittsburgh a Super Bowl.

Size of the market: Pittsburgh is first and foremost a football town. The Steelers are always number one in this city, and the Steel City would go insane if by some chance the 2022-23 Steelers make it to the Super Bowl. However, Pittsburgh is a small city. There will be competition for this bid, more than likely from larger markets that would be more attractive to the NFL. If the NFL has proven anything in recent memory, money talks louder than anything else. Pittsburgh does meet the requirements for hotel space for the numerous tourists and media that make the trip, but limited parking space and other minor issues could throw a monkey wrench into Pittsburgh’s desire to host a Super Bowl.

All in all, I think Pittsburgh would be an interesting choice to host a Super Bowl. The city would be electric and I think it could be a great host. Plus, the fact that Super Bowl 57 could be played at Heinz Field is a marketer’s dream (Heinz 57). There’s a good amount of intrigue when taking in all the deciding factors. I also believe the NFL might cave into their ties with the Rooney family. If the Rooney’s weren’t the Steelers owners, I don’t think Pittsburgh would have a chance to land this bid. We’ll find out in the next few years how realistic this chance is. Meanwhile, there’s other Super Bowls to concentrate on first.

Fireworks Come Early in July; Pirates Bats Explode in 9-3 Victory

The Pirates (44-33) kicked off the month of July in style with a 9-3 victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park. Neil Walker highlighted the box score with 4 hits, 2 of them home runs, and 3 RBI’s. All but one of the runs scored came in the 3rd and 8th innings. 5 men crossed the plate in the 3rd, including Walker’s first homer of the night; a 2-run shot. Walker homered again in the 8th, then Marte and Pedro hit back to back solo bombs. The team altogether tallied 21 hits, the most in a game for the Pirates since May 13, 2004. The offensive output overshadowed another great pitching performance from A.J. Burnett. The 38 year-old right-hander improved to 7-3 on the year, throwing 7 innings, with 7 hits, 2 runs (both earned), and 4 strikeouts.

Neil Walker loves hitting in Detroit. In his career, the Pittsburgh native is a lifetime .455 hitter at Comerica Park (20 for 44), including two game winning hits in extra innings. He’s 16 for 22, a .727 average, since 2013. Walker had been slumping as of late, but these two games in Detroit may be the kick-start he needs to get his bat going. The Pirates, still sitting 8 games behind the division leading Cardinals going into tonight’s set of games, are going to need production from the under-achieving Walker to make a run at the division, or at least the wildcard spot the Pirates have become so accustomed to the past two years.

A.J. Burnett continues to dominate the opposition. He turned in another sensational performance tonight, doing things he’s done all year. He’s locating his spots, and when he gets into trouble, he minimizes the damage. That’s what good pitchers do. He has definitely made a case to be an all-star this year. He’s now 7-3 with a 2.05 ERA. Only Zack Greinke and Max Scherzer have better ERA’s in the National League. He said before the season that this was going to be his last year. If it still is, he’s going out in style.

Nights like this give Buccos fans peace of mind that the offense just might be okay after all, but the offense has to be more consistent. Players like Walker and Alvarez need to pick it up, and Huntington has decisions to make about right field with the non-waiver trade deadline looming. That, however, is an article for another time. Bucco fans, enjoy tonight’s win. It was an explosive one.

Follow me on Twitter @chalicke for continued Pirates coverage.

Penguins Free Agency Day 1: Kessel, Plotnikov, and more

The Penguins made the biggest splash on a busy first day of NHL Free Agency by acquiring Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Meanwhile, a good amount of other signings happened, and it already leaves the Pens with a different looking roster. Here is a list of all trades and signings that affected the Penguins today:

Kessel Run: First and foremost, the Penguins won the Phil Kessel sweepstakes by pulling off a trade that many are calling a steal. Personally, I’m amazed at how Rutherford pulled it off. Pittsburgh gets Phil Kessel and prospects Tyler Biggs and Tim Erixon in exchange for Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling, and a 2016 3rd round draft pick. There are also conditional draft picks: if Pittsburgh makes the playoffs this upcoming season, Toronto will get Pittsburgh’s 2016 1st round pick and Pittsburgh will get Toronto’s 2016 2nd round pick. If the Penguins fail to make the playoffs, Toronto will receive Pittsburgh’s 2017 1st round pick and Pittsburgh will receive Toronto’s 2017 2nd round pick. If the Penguins do not make the playoffs the next two seasons, Toronto will get Pittsburgh’s 2017 second round pick and Pittsburgh will not receive any draft picks. Toronto has also agreed to retain $1.2 million of Kessel’s cap hit through the end of his contract, leaving his cap hit against the Penguins cap at $6.8 million.
My take: I was almost certain, along with many in the hockey world, that Rutherford would have to trade away one of his two young defensemen: Maata or Pouliot. Pittsburgh did give up two players with good upside, especially Kapanen (last year’s 1st round pick), a solid 3rd/4th line player in Spaling, and more draft picks. However they landed an elite goal scorer to play alongside an elite center who can feed him the puck. Kessel has the ability to make a run at the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Award playing next to Crosby or Malkin. Adding him adds scoring and depth to the forward position, while maintaining the young defensive core.

The Great Exodus: Several players that were on the Penguins last season have signed elsewhere or still remain free agents. Among the players that have signed contracts elsewhere are Paul Martin (San Jose), Steve Downie (Arizona), Blake Comeau (Colorado), Taylor Chorney (Washington), Jayson Megna (New York Rangers), and Thomas Greiss (New York Islanders). Maxim Lapierre, Daniel Winnik, and Christian Ehrhoff still remain unsigned.
My take: I expected all who signed contracts today to not return except for maybe Blake Comeau. I know the Penguins wanted him back, but only at the right price. At $2.4 million per year (which is what Colorado signed him at for three years), that was too steep for someone who more than likely would fill a 4th line role. I don’t expect Ehrhoff or Winnik to be back, but I have a feeling if Lapierre doesn’t sign elsewhere in the first few days of free agency, and the price would go down for him, the Penguins would try to bring him back. However, they wouldn’t be very aggressive. They have other targets they are considering. Jim Rutherford said today in a press conference that he is in the market for a 4th line center.

The “Plot” thickens: The Pens landed one of the Russian players they were after this offseason when they signed Sergei Plotnikov to a one-year entry-level contract. The 25-year-old winger has played his entire six-year professional career in the KHL in Russia.
My take: It has been rumored that Malkin wanted another Russian on the team and this signing gives them a possible winger to play alongside Geno. He’s physical, big, and has a decent scoring touch. He was also Malkin’s linemate at the IIHF World Championships earlier this year. This is a low risk signing with it being only one year. It is cheap, and this kid is young and seems to be on the rise based on his KHL career.

Adding depth: The Penguins also signed four players to two-way contracts: forwards Kael Mouillierat and Kevin Porter and defensemen David Warsofsky and Steve Olesky.
My take: These are signings to add depth at the minor league level. Especially since Kapanen and Harrington were traded away as part of the Kessel deal.

All in all, this was a successful day for the Penguins organization. There are some that do not like the Kessel acquisition because of reported laziness and issues in the room, but most of those rumors have been shot down by many insiders close to the Penguins and the Maple Leafs. Sidney Crosby is also excited about the acquisition: “He’s an elite scorer and has a lot of speed. I see him fitting in well with us,” Crosby told Josh Yohe of DK on Pittsburgh Sports. “We’re excited to have him on our team.” The bottom line for the Penguins is that Rutherford wanted to add scoring to this team. Mission accomplished.

Follow me on Twitter @chalicke for continued coverage of the Penguins offseason.

Penguins Free Agency: What Will It Take To Land Phil Kessel?

Today at 12 pm ET, the free agent market will open up and the Penguins are expected to make several moves to help improve the team to become a Cup contender again. The player they have been tied to the most in rumors however is Phil Kessel, not a free agent, but available for trade. Toronto put Kessel on the trade market to help rebuild a franchise that has been in shambles for most of recent memory. Pittsburgh is very interested in bringing the 27 year old winger to play alongside Crosby or Malkin, salivating at the upside of what the gifted Kessel could bring to the table offensively. But what will it take to bring Kessel to Pittsburgh?

Pens GM Jim Rutherford has been patient throughout this process of bringing in help to the top 6 forward situation. Many expected him to make a move during the NHL Draft this past weekend, but Rutherford stood pat, waiting for the right opportunity to make an offer Toronto can’t refuse. Rutherford has been known in the past to be a little trigger happy when it comes to making trades (see Despres for Lovejoy at last years trade deadline). Rutherford’s patience here may end up paying off. It’s no surprise that Toronto reportedly wants either Maata or Pouliot. According to a recent report, they’d prefer Maata per Mike Babcock. Babcock compared Maata’s talent to Nick Lidstrom, a defenseman Babcock has just a little bit of history with. The Penguins organization however is very reluctant to trade away the 20 year old Finnish defenseman. Another road block for the possible trade is Kessel’s $8 million cap hit. Kessel does get a $4 million bonus today, which is probably why he hasn’t been traded yet, but that still doesn’t help the cap situation for the Penguins. Two reports have come out that gives some hope to this situation though. First, during the NHL Draft, Calgary kicked the tires on trying to bring in Kessel, but nothing was done because Toronto was unwilling to retain any of Kessel’s salary. They did however offer to take on contracts to help alleviate for Kessel’s large cap hit. Second, reportedly, Toronto told an undisclosed team they were willing to eat $2 million of the cap hit. I don’t know if this undisclosed team is the Penguins or not, but maybe if the Pens offer enough, Toronto would be willing to retain some of Kessel’s salary. Taking in all of this information, I believe it will take something similar to this to get Kessel in a Penguins sweater:

Maple Leafs get: Derrick Pouliot, Chris Kunitz, Rob Scuderi, Scott Wilson, 2016 1st Round Pick

Penguins get: Phil Kessel, low-mid level prospect

It sounds like a lot to give up for Kessel. And it is. But you have to think from Toronto’s side here. Pouliot, Wilson, and the draft pick would be where they’re getting any actual value. Kunitz and Scuderi would be just to dump salary. Kunitz’s cap hit is $3.85 million and Scuderi’s is $3.375 million. Together that’s $7.225 million dumped to make room for Kessel’s $8 million. Kunitz would only be of any value for a season or two, and I believe if Scuderi is part of the deal, Toronto won’t retain any of Kessel’s salary. However, this does free up just a little bit of space to possibly go after powerplay quarterback Sergei Gonchar, who the Penguins are also interested in. I don’t believe Toronto sees Brandon Sutter as a guy you can build a package around for Kessel. They want someone mega talented and who has more prime years ahead of him. I believe Sutter is in his prime now. Maata’s and Pouliot’s best days are ahead of them. Centering the package around Pouliot may be enough to get Toronto to trade with Pittsburgh. The silver lining with giving up a prospect like Pouliot to get a player like Kessel is that Kessel is under contract for seven more seasons. The gives you a pretty good size window to have your core to be Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang, Maata, and Fleury. That’s a pretty good core to content for at least one Stanley Cup.

Getting Kessel is risky. Not necessarily is how he would produce, but in what you have to give up to get him. But you have to give up something to get something. Let’s see what the Penguins actually do here, and see if Rutherford still has that tendency to be trigger happy or if he waits patiently for the right deal to come to him.

Steelers. Penguins. Pirates.