He blew the call

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LOS ANGELES — Manager Jim Tracy thought Tom Gorzelanny’s stuff was better today in the 7-5 victory against the Dodgers than it was a few days ago against the Cardinals. Gorzelanny wasn’t so sure about that.

“I think my stuff was … pretty good today,” Gorzelanny said. “The fourth inning is what got me.”

The Pirates took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the fourth, but the Dodgers rallied with a couple of well-hit balls, a little luck and a bit of help from home plate umpire Ed Rapuano. Gorzelanny got rattled, but did not fold.

With runners at second and third and two out, Luis Gonzalez smashed a hard come-backer up the middle. The ball ricocheted off Gorzelanny’s foot toward first base. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez had to cut back when the ball bounced off Gorzelanny and by the time Sanchez tracked it down, Gonzalez was at first base and a run was in. Russell Martin drew a full-count walk, loading the bases.

The count also went full on Brady Clark. Gorzelanny threw a nice pitch, but Rapuano called ball four. That forced in a run.

It also was a bad call.

A laser tracker provided by MLB.com showed the pitch was low but still above the knees — easily in the zone for what should have been a called third strike.

Gorzelanny was visibly upset by the call. Wilson Valdez took the count full and then fouled off two pitches before Gorzelanny retired him on a pop-up.

“I should have made that play on Gonzalez,” Gorzelanny said. “I wasn’t happy with the walks, either, but I kept battling and we got out of it.”

That turned out to be huge for the Pirates. And it’s huge, too, for Gorzelanny, who is off to a 3-0 start. On a day when the Pirates were reeling a bit from a 7-3 wipeout in 10 innings the night before, Gorzelanny’s performance as a stopper — putting the brakes on a four-game losing skid — was vital.

— So this road trip is over. I can’t wait to get out of cold, rainy Los Angeles (after stops in cold, rainy Milwaukee and chilly St. Louis) and get back to Pittsburgh, where my wife says it was gorgeous the past few days.

I’m afraid to pull up weather.com, though, because I think I know what I’m going to see for the weather back home over the next few days … Please, not cold and wet.
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Tony Danza’s riding shotgun

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LOS ANGELES — You meet all kinds of people on van rides from airports to hotels.

Well, except in Milwaukee. I can’t recall ever sharing an airport shuttle ride there with anyone other than the driver. I mean, do anyone go to Milwaukee?

But I digress.

Earlier this week in St. Louis, I rode in with a very pleasant couple from Michigan who couldn’t figure out what time it was. The wife did not understand the concept of the Central Time zone. The husband got it, I think, but screwed it up each time he tried to explain. Finally, I turned around and fumed, “Just set your watch back an hour. Problem solved.”

Seated next to me today on the shuttle from LAX to the downtown Marriott was a girl with new-wave hair — multi-colored, wispy, sort of Flock of Seagulls-ish. Never mind that she wasn’t old enough to remember Flock of Seagulls in the first place. (Gosh, did I really just write that sentance? How old am I, that I’m already settling into crotchety old man mode?)

Anyway, nobody in the van was saying much because we were too busy listening to the woman sitting behind me. She was telling her son about her recent Brush With Greatness on the streets of Hollywood.

She met … can you believe it? … Tony Danza.

Go ahead, let out that laugh. I couldn’t, out of simply courtesy. But I wanted to guffaw in her face and tell her, it wasn’t no big thing. In fact, even I once met Tony Danza. It was in 1994, when I was in Las Vegas to cover a Michael Moorer (remember him?) title fight. I went down the strip one night to catch a Tony Bennett show and there in line behind me was Alyssa Milano’s dad from “Who’s the Boss?” I mean, c’mon. Danza had to stand in line with the rest of us to get in the joint. And he was behind me. Some big star, eh?

Of course, Danza did get a shout-out from Bennett during the show. That was cool.

I’m waiting for Danza to turn up in my hotel shuttle van when I blow outta this town Monday.

— Don’t look now, but a big chunk of the Pirates’ starting rotation has hit a rough patch.

For the most part, the group was outstanding throughout spring training and into the first couple of weeks of the regular season. But Tony Armas turned in another ugly start tonight, Zach Duke has been roughed up in two straight outings and Paul Maholm is 0-2 with a 6.19 ERA.

Going into Friday’s action, Duke had given up 32 hits — tying him with Dontrelle Willis for the most by any pitcher in the majors. Duke also was tied for most earned runs allowed (19).

— The most disturbing trend to come out of this road trip? Strikeouts.

Pirates batters are fanning at an alarming rate — 13 in the two games against St. Louis and 24 in two games against Milwaukee. Tonight, Randy Wolf whiffed 10. That was a season-high for the Dodgers. And with three innings to go as I type this, it could get worse.

— Don Kelly got his first major league hit last week at PNC Park. I asked him today what he did with the ball. “Sold it on eBay,” Kelly deadpanned.
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It’s mojito time!

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MILWAUKEE – Here I am again, back at what was Ground Zero for Randall Simon’s career.

Back when I was just the backup Pirates beat writer, the main guy never liked coming to Milwaukee so I covered at least one series here each season. I don’t mind Milwaukee, overall. Of all the National League towns, it most reminds me of Pittsburgh. It’s not as busy as Chicago, not as scenic as Denver, not as glamorous as LA, not as warm as Phoenix and not as seat-of-power-in-the-free-world-ish as Washington, but it has Summerfest (an awesome weeklong concert series) and … well, beer and brats.

When I got here this afternoon, I went to my favorite Milwaukee restaurant for lunch — Cubatinas, around the corner from the team hotel. It’s Cuban food, not brats. A cold Mojito instead of Milwaukee’s Best. Cubatinas was highly recommended to me a couple of years ago by Trenni Kusnierek of Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh, who is a Milwaukee native (Milwaukean? Milwauker? Milwannabe? Milwaukeeanian? Whatever).

The restaurant is in the middle of what is emerging as a funky neighborhood. Across the street is a Vespa dealership. Next to it is a joint called “Carnivore” (gee, what’s on the menu there?) and a few doors down is a sushi bar that advertises its “soon-to-be-famous Godzilla roll.” Wonder if it’s as good as the Kuwata roll I had in Bradenton?

• Milwaukee is the middle stop on a three-city road trip — two games in St. Louis, two here and three in Los Angeles. I am dreading the fight Friday morning out to LA. Basically, I’ll step off the plane, chug more coffee and head straight to Dodger Stadium for work.

Joe Rutter, who worked this gig before me, predicted two things about this road trip: 1. I’ll hate the travel and 2. I’ll be sick as a dog by the time I get home. He’s got a point. I mean, how much recycled airplane air can you breathe before some virus catches up with you?

• Here’s a shout out to Buzz, my freshman year roommate at Penn State. Buzz is a Phillies fan — which in my book ranks high on the list of faults a man can have — but, as I recall, otherwise was a pretty good guy.

Anyway, I hadn’t heard from Buzz in about 20-odd years. He came across my byline via a fantasy baseball tip on Yahoo.com. The e-mail he sent included this greeting: “How the heck are ya? A little older, judging by your Bucco Blog photo.”

Chalk up another vote in the “nuke it” column for my mugshot.

• It’s getting on toward the end of April, and Adam LaRoche is still in his batting funk. Bouncing him up or down in the batting order isn’t the answer — ” I don’t see that changing anything,” LaRoche told me the other day — so don’t expect manager Jim Tracy to tinker heavily with the lineup to try to jump-start his first baseman.

After talking with LaRoche, I get the sense it’s more a mental thing than anything to do with his stance, his swing, pitch recognition or whether he bats fourth or sixth. There are times when he goes to the plate, and wonders which infielder will stick out his glove and snare the line drive, instead of expecting the ball to get through for a hit. It’s a confidence thing.
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Gorzelanny rebounds at right time

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ST. LOUIS — So much for spring training stats, eh?

Tom Gorzelanny had a miserable time on the mound in Florida, struggling in the first inning and not getting much better after that in every game. His spring ERA was a whopping 7.96, and he allowed 28 hits in 26 innings.

The left-hander has done a 180-degree turn at the perfect time. He has looked sharp in two outings this season and takes a sparkling 1.50 ERA into Tuesday’s game against St. Louis.

When things appeared to be bleak during spring training, Gorzelanny told us not to worry. Give him credit for being true to his word.

&#149 New Busch Stadium beats the heck out of old Busch. Great view of the Arch from the seats behind home plate. And with three decks, the joint is cavernous and can get really loud.

One big drawback: If you gaze out the pressbox, past the seats in left-center field, you see a massive, debris-strewn crater that marks the spot where old Busch used to be. Hey, St. Louis, it’s been a year. Clean up that eyesore and build something there.

Other than that, this is a great park. But you’d better like the color red. And Anheiser-Busch products.

&#149 I saw this strange, glowing orb in the sky today as I walked down Eighth Street to the ballyard. It seemed to be emitting heat and a natural sort of light. A passerby said it was the Sun. If it’s there again tomorrow, I’ll take a picture and e-mail it to my sainted wife, who’s stuck in cold, gray Pittsburgh with the kids.

&#149 Speaking of my wife, she has promised to keep her own blog throughout this season — chronicling the daily grind of a working mom-turned-baseball widow — as a counterpoint to my adventures on the road with the Buccos. Her working title is “My Wife is a Saint” and it will be up and running soon on my MySpace page. I’ll provide a link once she starts her entries.

&#149 Good news: Pirates put up three runs in the first inning against Anthony Reyes. Better news: Adam LaRoche singled to keep the rally going. Bad news: they had just three hits, all singles, and left runners at the corners. Maybe it’s the start of a breakout by the offense. Stay tuned …
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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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