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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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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– Rob Biertempfel