Almost a storybook finish

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HOUSTON — Observations from the first two days of the season:

&#149 Monday, in the season opener, Mt. Lebanon native Don Kelly had a chance to make his major league debut truly memorable. With two outs, two on and the scored tied at 2 in the ninth, Kelly pinch-hit against Astros closer Brad Lidge.

It was a gutsy at-bat. Kelly hit a laser down the first-base line, just inches foul. “I thought I had it,” Kelly said.

Kelly worked the count full, then hit a looper into shallow left field that wasn’t … quite … far … enough. Shortstop Adam Everett snagged it on the run to end the inning.

&#149 Chris Duffy deserves wild applause for his throw from center field that nailed Chris Burke at the plate Monday. But do not overlook the role catcher Ronny Paulino had in the play.

Paulino might have been tempted to scoot out and snag the ball an instant or two sooner, but that would have taken him out of position. Instead, he stood his ground and blocked off the plate with his left leg. Burke had to adjust his slide, and Paulino was quick with the tag.

Think Jason Kendall would have made the same decision and gotten the same result? Me neither.

&#149 The group of outfielders at Class AAA Indianapolis includes Rajai Davis, Nyjer Morgan, Luis Matos, Chris Aguila and Michael Ryan. If Andrew McCutchen gets off to a hot start at Class AA Altoona, it won’t be difficult to find him a spot in Indy’s outfield.

&#149 So now Brad Lincoln joins the Pirates’ not-so-exclusive “Tommy John” Club. Lincoln, a right-hander who was drafted fourth overall last summer, will be sidelined for about a year, then will try to work his way back into shape during the 2008 season.

Before his injury, Lincoln’s likely ETA in Pittsburgh was 2009. Now, who knows? Sean Burnett, who had surgery in September 2004, is just now regaining his form.

You can’t blame this rash of arm/elbow/shoulder injuries on Pirates managerment. If anything, the team is uber-cautious with its prodigies — keeping strict pitch counts in the minor leagues and monitoring their outings in fall and winter leagues. Arm injuries happen. It’s the nature of the beast. Any pitcher could be a “Tommy John” victim in waiting — I’m talking to you Chris Carpenter.

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On the road again

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HOUSTON — I opened my eyes an instant before the foot smacked dead-center into my forehead. Wham!

Pleased by the solid thud of Nike-to-skull contact, my attacker giggled as he readied for another kick. I was pinned down, my escape route blocked by a beverage cart. All I could do was tilt my head to the right and hope he’d miss.

This was no back-alley street brawl. I was on Continental flight 1876 from Greater Pitt to Houston’s Bush International. A 2-year-old had squirmed out of his seat and toddled down the aisle. His father scooped him up, but the path back to their seats was blocked by the mid-flight beverage service. He stood next to my seat, holding his amped-up son, and the boy decided to play soccer with my head.

The woman in front of me had her seat fully reclined. With her scalp inches from my chin, I could easily see was in need of another dye job. The poor sap next to me in 10E was trying to sprawl as much as he could in the middle seat, and had an iron grip on the armrest. I was trapped.

So went my introduction to the glamorous life on the road as a baseball beat writer.

I went into this gig knowing there’s a ton of travel involved. Some of it will be boring — I’m talkin’ to you, Cincinnati. Some, such as New York and LA, will be more trouble than it’s worth. But, overall, it should be interesting. I’m looking forward to checking out other ballparks, and seeing how they compare to PNC Park.

From a fan’s point of view, PNC is a terrific place to watch a game. As a sportswriter, though, it’s one of the worst places to cover a game. The press box seems to be haven built as an afterthought — too high, with no protection from wind, rain and snow and with a long trek to the clubhouses.

Despite its geeky name, Minute Maid Park is a great venue. There’s that crazy hill in center field, lots of nice little touches for the fans, and everybody acts like Gene Autry when they play “Deep in the Heart of Texas” during the seventh-inning stretch. Oh, and the media lunch room has all the Minute Maid products you care to gobble up.

I took some aspirin last night, so my head wasn’t ringing when I woke up today, and there’s no bruise on my forehead. Good news. It’s almost time to walk down the street to the ballyard.

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Who goes North?

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SARAS0TA, Fla. — With three days left in spring training, most of the Pirates’ 25-man roster is set. The staring lineup is good to go, with the exception of Freddy Sanchez. Freddy got eight at-bats in a minor league game today, but was under orders to jog to first base and was not allowed to make the turn toward second. Think he’ll be ready for opening day? Or are the Pirates simply being uber-cautious?

The starting rotation is set. Duke and Snell have looked good this spring. Maholm has only made three starts this spring — half as many as Duke — but hasn’t shown any signs of problems. Let’s keep a close eye on him. Armas has been good; no indications of any injury problems. Gorzelanny … he could have a short leash this April.

There are two bullpen jobs up for grabs. I think they’ll go to Dan Kolb and Jonah Bayliss. If Kolb can’t get it done, Josh Sharpless — a Beaver County native and a real standout guy in a clubhouse full of good guys — should get a shot.

As for the bench spots … Let’s assume Sanchez spends the first week of the season in Florida, rehabbing his knee and tuning his swing. That makes Jose Castillo the opening day second baseman. So, who are the five bench guys?

Who I think will make the cut: Ryan Doumit, Humberto Cota, Jose Hernandez, Luis Matos, Nate McLouth.

Who should make the cut: Don Kelly, Brad Eldred, Matos, Cota and Doumit.

Kelly’s a local guy, and younger and cheaper than Hernandez. Yeah, Eldred has liabilities. But what other pinch-hitter would you want in the on-deck circle with two outs in the ninth?

What do you think? Click HERE to e-mail me your five picks for the bench spots, along with a reason or two why. I’ll post some of the better answers in an upcoming blog.
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Ready, Freddy?

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BRADENTON, Fla. — Freddy Sanchez has not played in a game since March 6, when he sprained his right knee while turning a double play at second base. At the time, the official diagnosis was a slight MCL sprain and Sanchez was listed as day-to-day.

With less than a week to go before the Pirates break camp, there is serious doubt whether Sanchez will be ready to start the season. Even if gets back in the lineup tomorrow (and there’s been no indication that will happen), can the defending NL batting champ fine-tune his swing in six games and be ready to step in against Roy Oswalt in the opener?

If Sanchez can’t go, Jose Bautista would open the season as the starting second baseman — which is exactly where some folks think he should have been all along. Castillo is probably better suited to handle the contact at second base, which is his natural position. The Castillo-Bautista battle this spring was a photo finish — similar batting stats, similar results in the field.

Castillo started at second base today against Tampa Bay. He was charged with an error for dropping a pop-fly, but it hardly was a routine play. Castillo had to sprint into shallow right field and try to make an over-the-shoulder catch on the run.

Castillo has started every game at second base since Friday, when manager Jim Tracy announced Castillo would begin the season as a bench utility player. That tells me that nobody is betting on Sanchez being ready to start the season.

The player who crashed into Sanchez, causing the injury, was Rod Barajas of the Phillies. “I feel terrible … but I’m wired to play the game one way, and that’s hard,” Barajas said later. Maybe, but it was just an exhibition game in early March, after all.

The Pirates play the Phillies July 27-29 in Philly and Aug. 17-19 at PNC Park. It will be interesting to see if any of Sanchez’s teammates have long memories when Barajas steps up to the plate.
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Black and gold all over

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DUNEDIN, Fla. — I spent the better part of an inning this afternoon chatting with Bob the Usher (sorry, Bob, I forgot your last name) at Knology Park, as the Toronto Blue Jays were in the process of rallying past the Pirates, 5-3. Bob’s working for the enemy, but he’s a western Pa. guy — he grew up in Aliquippa and told me some tales about playing football back in the day at Hopewell High.

It seems that no matter were I go down here, I run into plenty of former Pittsburghers. There are plenty of them, of course, among the boosters who volunteer at McKechnie Field in Bradenton. But I also get shout-outs from vendors, ushers, ticket takers and folks in the stands from Winter Haven to Fort Myers.

It’s not just a Florida thing. I had the same experiences when I was working as a rookie sports writer in the Washington, D.C. area back in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Pittsburgh fans are never shy at sporting events.
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Give him time

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My friend and fellow scribe John Perrotto, who has covered nearly two dozen spring training camps, says without hesitation that Andrew McCutchen is the Pirates’ most electrifying prospect since Barry Bonds took the money and ran. From what I’ve seen from McCutchen this spring — the sweet swing, the dynamite glovework, keen batting eye, speed, power — I’ve got to agree.

So why is McCutchen not going to be on the Opening Day roster?

He needs more time in the minors, according to general manager Dave Littlefield. And, again, I agree.

McCutchen’s resume shows just 192 games played in the minors — only 20 of them at Class AA Altoona. He has 741 career at-bats, all but 78 of them coming in rookie ball or Class A. Earlier this spring, McCutchen said the jump up to Altoona was good because he was able to face better pitchers — pitchers with more guile, to be sure, but also guys who are around the strike zone more consistently. Imagine what McCutchen will learn when he gets to spend an entire season facing better pitching.

If the Pirates were gonna be legit division-title contenders this season, it would make sense to have a guy with McCutchen’s skills on the roster. But to force him to languish as a bench player for all of what likely will be a 75-win summer would be counterproductive. No need to start McCutchen’s clock ticking toward arbitration and — sigh — free agency any sooner than you have to.

The only question now is, will McCutchen start this season at Altoona or Triple-A Indianapolis? In February, it seemed obvious that he was ticketed for Altoona. Now, I would not be surprised to see McCutchen as Indy’s outfield in April.

Either way, he’ll be at PNC Park come September. And for a long, long time after that.
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Spring break

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SARASOTA, Fla. — I’m taking a one-week sabbatical from the blog … and from spring training. Tomorrow I’ll fly back to Pittsburgh (with a nice, long layover in New Jersey as punishment for my suntan) so I can re-introduce myself to the wife and kids. It will be interesting to see who’s still in the clubhouse when I get back.

Tom Gorzelanny was supposed to be a lock for the rotation, but he’s struggled this spring — yep, there he is, giving up a run-scoring single to Jeff Conine even as I type this. The Pirates aren’t going to give up on Gorzelanny in seven days, but lefty Shane Youman sure has looked mighty good so far.

Boom, Josh Hamilton lashes an RBI single to right. It’s 3-0 Reds and still the first inning. Time for a chat on the pitcher’s mound.

The decision to stick Brad Eldred in the outfield jumbled the conventional wisdom about who’s getting the five bench spots …

… ex-Buccos catcher David Ross singles to left, and it’s 4-0. Hmmm …

If you put a gun to my head today (and please don’t; I’ll tell you what I think for free) I’d pencil the opening day lineup like this: CF Duffy, SS Wilson, 3B Sanchez, 1B LaRoche, LF Bay, RF Nady, C Paulino, 2B Castillo, SP Duke. The bench: Bautista, Hernandez, Matos, Doumit, Eldred.

I’d go into the pitching, too, but it’s too sunny a day to sit here in the press box, pecking away on my laptop. I’ll mull it over sometime next week, while my daughter is busy kicking my butt on GameCube.

… Eric Milton cooperates by fanning on a full-count fastball, and, mercifully, the inning is over. One down. Three weeks to go.
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Good eats

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BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates have held their spring camp here since 1969, so there’s not a lot of new ground I can break. But I do have one small claim to fame: I was the first person at McKechnie Field to chow down on a giant turkey leg.

The food in the press lunch room is a hit-or-miss proposition, so I went native the day the Pirates played their opener here a few days ago. The first stand I saw had a big sign proclaiming “GIANT TURKEY LEG!” I mean, how can you go wrong with that?

For a mere six bucks (note to the Trib’s accounting department: they did not have any receipts, so you’ll have to take my word for it on my expense account form), I got a man-sized hunk of meat and bone. Wrapped in tin foil, it resembled a bocci ball on a stick.

I took a bite and was immediately peppered with questions from the folks working the stand. Was it tasty? Was it cooked enough? Too hot? Too cold? Turned out, I was the first customer.

No one asked me the one question I really needed to hear: Did I need a napkin?

During the regular season, you can usually expect to get a decent meal in the press box. But that’s not always the case in spring training. There’s a restaurant chain down here called — no lie — Beef O’Brady’s, which isn’t too bad. But you get tired of that, and Applebee’s/Olive Garden/Pizza Hut and the rest.

To break up the monotony, the other night I went out for sushi with some of the Japanese reporters. And, yes, I ordered the Kuwata roll (raw oyster and other stuff I could not identify). I also got a NYYankees roll (spicy tuna) and the aptly named Godzilla roll (it came highly recommended and, dunked in a ton of wasabe, did not disappoint).

But what I really could use right now is a sloppy Vincent’s pizza or, better yet, some rouladen and a cold Penn Gold at Penn Brewery on the North Side.
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Screamin’ for Sharpy

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — There were plenty of Pirates fans today at Hammond Stadium, watching the game against the Twins. They got to see the Pirates notch their first win this spring, 5-2.

Members of the St. Vincent College, Seton Hill and Thiel baseball teams were in the stands. The college teams are playing games through Saturday in Fort Myers and nearby Cape Coral.

St. Vincent sports information assistant Jim Berger sat a half-dozen rows from third base, wearing a Pirates hat and working on his sunburn. “This is awesome. My first spring training game,” Berger said. Berger and his boss, Jeff Zidek, fly back home Saturday. The players and coaches will take a less luxurious road back to Westmoreland County — they’re making a 21-hour (more or less) drive.

The Seton Hill team filled up a section of seats below the press box. They were rowdy the entire game, especially after the Pirates took the lead in the eighth inning.

In the ninth, reliever Josh Sharpless came in to nail down the win. Sharpy is a Beaver County guy, from Freedom High School, so Seton Hill’s players chanted, “Freedom Bulldogs!”

Once Sharpless finishes his warm-up tosses, he usually takes a step off the mound and says a small prayer. As he did that yesterday, he tried not to laugh as the Seton Hill players cranked up their cheering and chanting. “After I walked (Jason) Tyner, I heard them going again,” Sharpless said. “Pretty cool. I’m glad they stuck with it. It says a lot about them.”

Sharpy got the next two outs and the save. The Seton Hill players caught some grief from grumpy Twins fans, but they still were laughing as they left the ballyard.

An excellent way to spend a warm, sun-splashed afternoon — especially since there’s 3 inches of snow waiting for them back home.

On a totally unrelated note, thanks to those of you who have dropped me emails about this blog — especially those who, like me, are horrified by my picture that appears with it.

Yes, I know that mugshot makes me look like the Zodiac killer. No, I can’t do anything about it.

I’m not as cranky in real life as that photo makes me look.
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Ouch!

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“Freddy’s down.”

The folks sitting on either side of me on press row at McKechnie Field were looking down at their laptops, so I was the first one to notice when Freddy Sanchez didn’t bounce up right away after turning a double play yesterday against the Much-Hated Phillies. But as soon as I said those two words, everyone’s heads snapped up.

You always hate to see someone injured, but it seems worse when it happens on sunny afternoon in a meaningless game. Another reason I hate injuries — I have to follow up on it. You ever stand next to someone who’s writhing in pain and have to take notes on what’s wrong and what it might mean? No fun there, pal, but it’s my job. Still, I feel a little like those vultures who slow to a crawl to inspect a two-car pile-up on the Parkway East. If you can’t help the situation, get out of the way.

We waited in the clubhouse while Freddy was being examined. The door to the trainer’s room (which is off-limits to media) was open when we walked into the clubhouse. It closed quickly once it was obvious we were there. Finally, Freddy walked out, limping just a bit. It looked like a best-case scenario, given the circumstances: just a mild sprain.

Freddy wasn’t scheduled to make today’s trip to Fort Myers, anyway, so he’ll get some time to rest. He’s a tough guy, though; he’ll be back out there in a few days.

You’ve gotta wonder, though, if maybe the Pirates aren’t re-thinking the decision to move Freddy to second base.

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– Rob Biertempfel