Friday, September 18, 2009

Are You Ready For Some Mashed-Up Pittsball?

This is the sort of thing that, out of modesty and/or embarrassment, I would normally leave for Jack to put on the blog later without my explicit permission. But he's in Utah for a long weekend and this took up too big a portion of my e-mailing time for the week, and has too short a shelf-life, to let languish in my private correspondence with him (the topic of conversation was Pirates players who could theoretically be Steelers). So: I expect this accurately predicts, in its own way and at a high enough level, how the Pittsburgh pro football and baseball franchises will perform in their games this weekend, as the Steelers visit Chicago and the Pirates, what, host San Diego or something? Anyone out there still paying attention?

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Pirate Matt Capps Somehow Blows Late Steelers Lead As Bears Win, 18 - 17
(for publication on Monday, September 20, 2009)

For most of four quarters yesterday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked like they were rerunning a gutsy, come-from-behind win that their fans had seen many times before. But last year's familiar, championship-winning script took a shocking plot twist on the Bears' final drive, when Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell inexplicably inserted closer Matt Capps into the game.

The Steelers and Bears traded first-quarter touchdowns and entered halftime tied, 10 - 10. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers offense sputtered in the third quarter while Bears QB Jay Cutler spearheaded two long drives ending in field goals to lead, 16 - 10, with 4:30 left in the game. As he has so many times, though, Big Ben orchestrated a late drive down the field, finishing with an eight-yard touchdown toss to running back Mewelde Moore. The Steelers defense took the field before a stilled Chicago home crowd with 1:35 left on the clock and a narrow 17 - 16 lead, hoping to put a cap on the game.

But Russell decided to put a Capps in the game instead.

Capps' brief, unhappy cameo began inauspiciously when he hit Chicago left tackle Orlando Pace with his second pitch. Then, to explosive cheers from a Soldier Field crowd that had been deflated into near-silence only minutes before, running back Matt Forte crushed a first-pitch, eighty-eight mile per hour fastball into the second level of stands above the Steelers end zone for a two-run home run.

It was Fortes' first walk-off homer in his season-plus as an NFL ball carrier. Capps tallied his sixth blown save of the season, his first in a non-baseball opportunity.

"It's been that kind of frustrating year for me, in a couple of different sports now," Capps said after the game from his stall in an otherwise empty visitors' locker room at Wrigley Field. "I wanted to just burn that first pitch past [Forte] -- as a football guy he's used to a bigger ball, a really entirely differently shaped ball -- but I just didn't get the velocity on it that I wanted."

"I thought the location on that pitch was actually pretty good, low and in," said Russell, who declined to comment on a heated exchange with an apoplectic Mike Tomlin immediately after the game. "Give credit to Forte, he read the situation right and had time to grab a bat and get a piece of the ball."

"I wouldn't call it a mistake pitch but it was the kind of pitch that a good batter is going to hit," Capps said of the ill-fated fastball. "Or a good running back too, I guess."

Russell defended his decision to go to Capps, who has been an uneven performer this summer, in a critical situation in which the Pirates were not playing. "Look, Cappy's had a tough year. He'll be the first to admit that," Russell said. "But he's our guy and I trust him enough to give him the ball late in the game. I don't care what kind of ball or what kind of game it is."

Capps became the first Pirates player to record a loss for one of Pittsburgh's other professional sports franchises since June 6th, when then-Pirates pitcher Ian Snell, whom Russell started unexpectedly in place of Penguins center Sidney Crosby in game five of the Stanley Cup Finals, surrendered four first-period runs to the Detroit Red Wings before head coach Dan Bylsma benched him. The Penguins went on to lose that game 5 - 0.

In their seventeen consecutive seasons of losing baseball, the Pirates have now contributed as well to fourteen losses by other professional and collegiate teams in Pittsburgh, including three by the Steelers (most infamously in the 1998 AFC Championship Game); two by Pitt's women's basketball team; one in the Pittsburgh Riverhounds' inaugural home game; and one by Carnegie Mellon University's small-size entry in the 2003 RoboCup robot soccer tournament in Padua, Italy.

How do the Steelers feel about the Pirates' epic losing streak as it bleeds over into other sports?

"I just hate it this way, man," said tearful wide receiver Hines Ward in a decidedly angry Steelers locker room. "To play fifty-nine minutes of Pittsburgh football and then lose because of one minute of Pittsburgh baseball. You know, you never see Deebo go out there and [mess] up a Pirates game." Ward referred to a 2006 Pirates match against St. Louis in which Steelers linebacker James Harrison unexpectedly sacked Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter for a safety in the sixth inning. The Cardinals won that game 9 - 2.

"It's a tough way to lose a football game," offered a more conciliatory Roethlisberger. "I know I left some points out there today. I have to get better, we have to get better in the running game, in the offensive line, in the baseball team down the street. I would say especially on the baseball side of things."

The Steelers organization has repeatedly acknowledged the Pirates as one of its most glaring weaknesses, going so far as to sign over their first-round selection in this April's draft, Evander "Ziggy" Hood, to the Pirates. Hood struggled in three relief appearances for the Pirates' low-single A West Virginia affiliate before undergoing reconstructive surgery on his throwing arm in June. He is scheduled to resume pitching in 2011.

"There's no doubt about it, the Pirates have to keep getting better," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said late Sunday after emerging from the Heinz Field office of Art Rooney II, following what Huntington characterized as an "animated but productive" meeting with the Steelers president. "Pittsburgh is a great sports town, especially now, with world champion football, champion hockey. As our core of young guys keeps getting better and we keep adding talent, we look forward to a day not too far from now when the Pirates can go out there and win a lot of baseball games for the sports fans of Pittsburgh."

Huntington added, "And, meanwhile, not lose too many of their other kinds of games."


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