- Grove City, Pennsylvania

July 3, 2013

EXTRA INNINGS: It's 'aboot' time to ice the hockey talk

By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist

OPINION — ON SUNDAY, the Pittsburgh Pirates had just finished their unexpected, unanticipated performance of the 2013 baseball season, their 51-30 record good for the National League Central lead and as owners of the best record in the majors. After opening the year 1-5, the Bucs reeled off 50 wins in the next 75 games.

The Pirates had 50 wins prior to July 1 for the first time in franchise history and were the first team to reach 50 wins this season; they had been the first to 50 wins only twice before in the past 100 years—in 1921 and 1960.

Only twice previously had the Bucs gone 51-30 to start the season—41 and 42 seasons ago, in 1971 and 1972.

The Bucs had just won nine straight for the first time since they won 10 consecutive games in 2004, swept the once-invincible Brewers in a three-game series for the first time since 2009, knocked off Milwaukee in five consecutive meetings for the first time since 2002, and for the first time ever had swept an interleague series on the road (against the Angels).

The Bucs won their last nine home games that were decided by a one-run margin (10-3 overall in one-run home games in 2013) and haven’t enjoyed a longer home winning streak in one-run games since they won 10 straight in 2004.

Nearly every game seems to result in another “first ever” or “first time since 1992” statistic.

The six relievers who yielded two hits and no runs on 12 Sunday put the exclamation mark on the first half of the season with the franchise’s best relief pitching performance: For the first time in their 127 history, Pirate relievers tossed 12 shutout innings in a game. Vin Mazzaro set the tone by throwing five perfect relief innings, the first time a Pittsburgh reliever had retired that many consecutive batters since 1919. And it was the first 14-inning (or longer) game where Pirates pitchers didn’t allow a walk since 1976.

No wonder that after 22 years of negativity, the national media are taking note.

Headlining SportsCenter, USAToday sports pages, and news wire reports across the county, the Pittsburgh Pirates have become the darlings of the baseball world.

Evidently, someone forgot to pass on this rather significant info to the misguided souls who run the Sunday “Sports Showdown” following the late news on KDKA television.

With the Pirates a no-brainer as the number one topic for the night, the little kid next door could have picked the biggest sports story in Pittsburgh—if not the country at baseball’s halfway point. The same obviously could not be said of KDKA sports director Bob Pompeani, who inexplicably zeroed in on the probability of the Pittsburgh Penguins extending the contract of Chris Letang as the lead.

You gotta be kidding me.

It has been weeks since the so-so talent on the Boston Bruins humiliated the Stanley Cup favorites in four straight embarrassing performances by a team that boasts the two best hockey talents on the planet in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

It’s aboot time for Pittsburgh to melt the ice on the Canadian sport. (Of the 211 players drafted Sunday, only 31 were from the USA.)

This is not meant as a hockey-bashing column, but nationally hockey is about as popular as pro basketball. Its seven-month regular season eliminates only 14 of the 30 teams from the post-season, during which time 16 teams play for two months. The league is still unable to get a favorable network contract, with games on the NBC Sports Channel (remember the Versus network broadcasts) unavailable to huge chunks of the country.

Although the inordinate number of hockey-hysterical Pittsburgh talk show hosts would have us believe otherwise, the NHL and NBA COMBINED are not as popular as Major League Baseball.

And most area hockey fans couldn’t name 10 Penguins who played before the Sidney Crosby era.

Shame on Pompeani for not giving the Pirates their due.