#83: A Morning with Manny
-- A big reason why the Penguins are lagging.
-- Give Ben a break.
Today was awesome.
Baseball has always been my first sports love. I've watched baseball since I was 5, played little league for four years, and watched the Buccos ever since. I didn't start following football until the Cowher Era, and I didn't start understanding it until college. And hockey, well, I'm still trying to get a handle on some elements of hockey.
That said, a friend of mine is a Pirate season ticket holder, and he wasn't going to be in Pittsburgh this week. Therefore, he asked me if I wanted to take advantage of an offer made to season ticket holders where you and a guest can take batting practice for about an hour and eat lunch. And Manny Sanguillen would be there to provide tips.
I elected to take the 11AM-to-Noon window.
I took a friend of mine along (he was so stoked he offered to drive). We half expected there to be a long line of smarmy, rich-looking yuppies with their old-men clients along, all dressed up khakis and button-down shirt and ties out into the hallway.
Fortunately that wasn't the case...that'd have sucked all the fun right out of it.
As it was, it was pretty deserted.
And blurry, too...
We actually got there early enough that we were led back to the cages at about 10:45, so we were in the cages before our window began. And there were all of 13 people there, including Manny Sanguillen.
I had my buddy take this picture because I like candid shots, not because I enjoy emulating Shawn Chacon's hat-wearing skills and holding baseball bats awkwardly to get the framing right...
10:47 A.M. and all's well.
Shortly after this pic was snapped, I just jumped right into the batting cages. And there, I faced the oldest MasterPitch-6 "Iron Mike" pitching machine the planet had to offer. They had the machines throwing at about 45 MPH, so they said, but in the cage on the right, you had to step up a considerable bit, or else you were going to be golfing for the duration of your session.
For not taking hacks for at least six months in any capacity, and really not taking any rips since college, I didn't whiff on much. Actually, I was very consistent. I found this scenario playing pretty often:
Look out, folks... (and see where home plate is?)
After that, I only stood in line for the left cage, where you could at least stand back at where they painted the plate. That helped with swinging a bit earlier and at least start bouncing them back to the pitcher.
That's when I heard and older man with a Panamanian accent say, "Keep your head up a little!"
This was the first time I really heard him speak up to a batter in the cage in the forty minutes I'd been there. They were still prepping the other cage for the next batter at the time, so I deducted that Manny was throwing that pointer to me.
I followed his advice.
And suddenly, I was lining out to first or second base. Incredible.
Of course, I was still facing 45MPH pitches.
Another highlight of the day included whose names were on the bats we were using.
Kevin Young (on the knob)...Again, channeling Chacon...
And best of all...
I wonder if it's any coincidence that I started whiffing on some pitches when I was using that last bat (he struck out 27 times in 99 at-bats as a Buc).
When I was done with my last session (Iron Mike started malfunctioning, not chambering balls), I came out of the cage. I went to get a picture with Manny. Without asking for his opinion, he said, "You have a very good swing. And one where you went like this..." - holds his arms out perfectly extended - "...it was perfect." He also mentioned that he liked how I twirled the bat around once between each pitch.
I'm sure he was complimentary to everyone. Still, it felt good to be told that by a guy who hit nearly .300 for his career in the Bigs.
What a great man...
So, my buddy and I got an autographed photo and headed on down the blurry hallway to the visitors clubhouse. Plump and juicy ballpark franks, big burgers, all the condiments you would want, and of course a bag of chips/pretzels, and a pepsi/lemonade to wash it all down with.
Visitors clubhouse is pretty nice.
I could hang out here...
I suppose that since this event occurred at about the halfway point between when the Pirates were virtually eliminated from the post-season last season, and the opener of next season, I could probably say that this was the highlight of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
There are, no doubt, many Penguins fans wondering what is wrong with their favorite hockey club.
They need look only as far as the Shots-on-Goal differential. I know I've mentioned this before in previous entries, but as a refresher, you take the average number of shots you take per game, and then subtract the average number of shots you allow (on goal...those that miss the net don't count). What's left is the differential.
The Penguins are ranked #21 in the league as of yesterday, with a -1.3.
In 2003-2004, only 3 teams with a negative differential made the playoffs, none worse than -1.3. San Jose made the conference finals with a -0.9, but Evgeni Nabokov is no slouch in goal.
In 2005-2006, again, only 3 teams in the red made the playoffs. Two teams (Nashville and Montreal) were eliminated in the first round, and the other, New Jersey, almost dead even at -0.1, fell in the second round to eventual-champ Carolina. Carolina was only +0.9 on the season, but Cam Ward was the Conn Smythe winner.
Finally, last season, there were actually 6 teams that made it with a negative differential. Five of the six were eliminated in the first round, Pittsburgh among the fallen (-2.0), and top-seeded Buffalo the only survivor (-1.5).
The Red Wings led everyone last year with an off-the-chart +9.2. And most hockey fans know that it was the play of Anaheim Ducks netminder J.S. Giguere that was beyond brilliant and allowed the Ducks to ultimately prevail.
Back to the present.
We're coming up to the point of the season where it's too far in to say, "It's still early". This is when tendencies begin to get established. Not that it's still too late for things to turn one way of the other. Prime example, Philadelphia.
The acquisition of Daniel Briere from Buffalo has paid the biggest dividends, but it's their goalies, Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki, who're the ones to thank.
Philadelphia is dead last in SOG differential (-9.1). However, they are third best in save percentage (.930) and tops in scoring efficiency. A whopping 12.4% of their shots result in goals.
No way will this combination hold up. Philly is going to have to adjust their defensive scheme, because the SV% and the scoring efficiency are going to come back to the pack at some point. Just keep an eye on that.
Back to the 'Burgh.
As I mentioned, the SOGD for the Pens is -1.3, good for 21st out of 30.
Their save percentage is 19th best, at .898.
Their scoring efficiency, also 19th - 9.51%
I don't know what it will take to get Jordan Staal back into last year's form, but it might not be a bad idea to start with a defensive scheme that puts the Penguins in front of their opponent's net more than the reverse.
So goes Ben Roethlisberger, so go the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Can you believe there are still clowns out there who still think Ben is just a game manager? Who still subscribe to the late 70's, early 80's thinking of, "We need to run the ball more"?
Are you kidding me?
With the offensive line as suspect as it is, it is almost essential that the Steelers pass the ball early to get opposing defenses to play back. If they can't/don't throw the ball, defenses will put 8 or 9 in the box, overwhelm the line, and stop Willie Parker for minimal gain (or less).
While Parker has been seen bowling over smaller DBs on runs in the past, he is not a power back. He would not be able to drag a linebacker like Brian Urlacher for additional yards. Parker is most effective when the line can hold off an even-man rush and give Parker enough time to make one cut (just one, not more) and make the corner, or, occasionally burst off tackle. With too many defenders up front, this takes it away.
The Steelers must pass early. They drew a lot of criticism a couple weeks back for not running enough against Denver's reportedly weak front seven. I think they were just trying to throw too deep. Crossing routes to one of our 700 tight ends would have at least kept the linebackers guessing.
Still, it's water under the bridge.
It appears that the Steelers have a "cream puff" schedule leading up to their December 9th showdown against New England at the Razor. Their next three opponents have won a combined 4 games. Two of those contests are played at Heinz.
As to New England, if the Steelers play the Pats like they played the Browns, they'll lose by 40. If they play like they did a couple Mondays ago against the Ravens, they'll lose by 10.
Pittsburgh, while formidable, is not yet complete enough as a team to hang with the Patriots and steal one.