Meadville Tribune

October 8, 2013

WALK TALK: Underdog role suits Pirates well

By Dan Walk
Meadville Tribune

— 1 As Monday’s Game 4 between Pittsburgh and St. Louis was coming to a close, I had this feeling that the series was over and the Cardinals were heading to the next round. Then I had to remind myself that there’s an all-deciding Game 5 on Wednesday in St. Louis. Even though there are at least nine innings left for division rivals Pittsburgh and St. Louis to decide who’s the better team this season, the Cardinals have everything in their favor. Adam Wainwright, who threw seven innings of three-hit ball in Game 1 of this series, steps to the mound again in Busch Stadium. Some pundits expected a series sweep after the Cardinals’ 9-1 domination in that game. The Cardinals also have the experience — they erased a 6-0 deficit after three innings and 7-5 deficit in the ninth to beat Washington in last year’s divisional series. Pittsburgh will once again be the underdog — but do the Pirates and their fans want it any other way? Pittsburgh has thrived in the underdog role all season — what’s to stop it now?

2 I’m no Pirates fan, but watching the excitement coming from their fan base during this postseason run — and even late in the season as the 81 wins and the playoffs neared — has been great to watch. Pittsburgh’s fans have been loud in each of their three home postseason games — two of which were victories and one, on Monday, was a 2-1 defeat. But as Andrew McCutchen popped out to end Monday’s game, the air was let out of PNC Park. Was that the Pirates’ final home game of the season or will they host Game 3 of the NLCS on Oct. 14?

3 What happened to the Detroit Tigers’ offense? Detroit has scored just six runs through three games and is fortunate it hasn’t been swept already by Oakland in their American League Division Series. Through 27 innings, the Tigers have scored during just two innings — three in the first inning of Game 1 in a 3-2 victory and three in the fourth during Monday’s Game 3 6-3 defeat. The Tigers have been considered the AL favorite since losing in last year’s World Series and would be a huge disappointment if they cannot reach the ALCS.

4 The Cleveland Indians turned a 90-plus loss season into a 90-plus win season that included a wild card playoff berth. They had a remarkably successful year that was unexpected and thrilling during the final month. I still can’t help but be disappointed in how the season concluded — a scoreless loss at home in which the Tribe had so many chances to bring home at least one run. The last time the Indians had nine hits without scoring was 1938.

5 One thing to take away from the season is that Cleveland was a top-10 team in all of baseball. All nine players from the playoff game’s starting lineup will be back next year, as will ace pitcher Justin Masterson. The Tribe has to be sure it brings pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Joe Smith back into the fold, while the return of Scott Kazmir is unlikely (his price may be too high). Chris Perez has to go. Cleveland will have to be creative with its free agent signings — as always — but behind manager Terry Francona, this team will remain a legit contender next year.

6 Watching fourth-ranked Ohio State sneak past Northwestern 40-30 on Saturday made something very clear to me: The Buckeyes are the most overrated team in the country. OSU is now 18-0 under Urban Meyer but the No. 16 Wildcats were the highest ranked team the Buckeyes have played during his tenure. Of the 18 wins, only five were against ranked opponents. The Buckeyes should finish the regular season undefeated because only one good opponent (Michigan) remains but they’d be lucky to be the fifth-best team in the Southeastern Conference.

7 There’s no way the Denver Broncos, who are allowing 27.8 points per game, are the best team in the NFL right now. Being one of three 5-0 teams puts Denver near the top of the league, but it can only expect Peyton Manning to average three touchdowns a game for so long. Yet, on a completely unrelated note, Denver hosts Jacksonville next week and is a 28-point favorite, tied for the largest ever according to media reports. We’ll have to wait at least another week for Denver to play a quality defense with an elite quarterback.

8 Kansas City is now one of three undefeated teams in NFL and its ability to finish games strongly is a big reason why. The Chiefs are outscoring opponents 47-17 in the fourth quarter, including a 13-0 finish on the road to beat Tennessee 26-17. KC running back Jamaal Charles has come up huge late in the game, rushing for 160 yards and averaging 5.5 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this year. He’s running at a 3.1 yard clip during every other quarter.

9 NFL quick hits: It was easy to believe the Colts had a fluke season last year, considering the team’s easy schedule. But there’s no denying their elite status right now after they’ve already beaten what was projected to be the best two teams in the NFC, Seattle and San Francisco. ... It’s amazing how good Tony Romo is for most of the game before he consistently blows it in the clutch. He threw for 506 yards and five touchdowns only to throw an interception at Dallas’ 24-yard line in the final three minutes of Sunday’s loss. ... Top 5 teams: 1. New Orleans (5-0), 2. Denver (5-0), 3. Seattle (4-1), 4. Kansas City (5-0), 5. Indianapolis (4-1). ... And the bottom 5: 32. Jacksonville (0-5), 31. Tampa Bay (0-4), 30. New York Giants (0-5), 29. Pittsburgh (0-4), 28. Minnesota (1-3).

10 49ers safety Donte Whitner, who is known for being physical in the defensive backfield, is legally dropping the “W” from his last name. He now plans to go by Donte Hitner. This move, which is clearly a shot at the NFL and its crackdown on hard hits, made me think of other football players who could have more interesting names with a letter added or removed. There could be Houston linebacker Brian Crushing. If Reggie Bush wanted to speak as a caveman when he carries the ball, it could be Reggie Rush. If you email me some other good ones, I can include them in next week’s column.

The preceding was The Walk Talk 10, which runs in the Tribune's sports section every Tuesday. Assistant news editor Dan Walk can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at dwalk@meadvilletribune.com.