- Grove City, Pennsylvania

December 12, 2013

EXTRA INNINGS: Steelers still in playoff hunt — sure they are!

By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist

OPINION — FACING REALITY NOT HAPPENING: Fast forward to Feb. 3, 2014. It’s the day after the Broncos and Seahawks got together for a little football game in New Jersey…and the Pittsburgh media have released their weekly Monday morning missive explaining how the Steelers can still make the 2013 playoffs.

By the end of September, the team had lost all eight games played in 2013. True, the first four were August exhibition games, but it was déjà vu after dropping their first four regular season games. Scalpers really had to work to dump those unwanted tickets.

By the first week of November, the Steelers found themselves burdened with a 2-6 mark. A three-game win streak (albeit with two of those wins against embarrassments known to all as the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns) got the playoff possibilities drooling from talk show hosts, newspaper columnists, and bloggers, each one requiring the smallest of miracles, not large ones, mind you, just semi-marvels.

As the season progressed and the odds dwindled, each week produced even wackier scenarios. Even with 13,000 no shows for Sunday’s loss to Miami, we heard a post-game litany of needed events for the Steelers to play in January.

Don’t worry…just keep reading and waiting for those December developments necessary to lead Pittsburgh to East Rutherford the day before.

TOMLIN TWO-STEP : If you want a perfect illustration of the cat that swallowed the raven, catch the knowing grin on Mike Tomlin’s face just after Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones had to change his path to the end zone because the coach just happened to step onto the field during Jones’ kick return down the sideline.

While the Steelers’ PR department worked overtime to script Tomlin’s response last Tuesday, the league didn’t buy it and fined him $100,000, which probably won’t even come out of his $5.75 million yearly salary. My problem is not with anything the NFL did; my problem is with the referee who was 10 feet from Tomlin when he did his two-step. By rule, a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct could have given Jones another 15 yards. Or the referee could have given the Ravens an automatic touchdown.

Those who believe in Karma no doubt felt it was manifested when Antonio Brown inexplicably stepped out of bounds on the final play of Sunday’s game. Perhaps he lost his orientation because he was watching the play unfold on the stadium’s JumboTron.

SHOPPING LIST: So, here’s the Pirates’ shopping list during this week’s Winter Meetings:

ä Right field. The Pirates’ perennial problem was solved last August with the addition of Marlon Byrd, who recently signed a two-year $16 million deal with Philadelphia. According to General Manager Neal Huntington, the Pirates will staff the position with a combination of Jose Tabata, Travis Snider, Andrew Lambo, and/or newcomer Jaff Decker. Which one or which combo from that group of those gives you any confidence?

ä First base. Another minefield, where Justin Morneau was the best of last year’s bunch. That Morneau never hit a home run for the Pirates caused the Pirates to brush him off; he landed in Colorado on a two-year, $13 million contract. The Pirates will go with holdover Gaby Sanchez, the master of hitting a ball with a runner on third and fewer than two outs without driving in the runner, and a yet-unnamed lefty batter to replace the non-tendered Garret Jones, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal with Miami. The latest rumors link the Bucs with free agent James Loney, who hit a whopping 13 home runs in 2013. He’s looking for a three-year, $25-$30 million deal. Jonesy’s looking better, no?

ä Starting pitcher: If A.J. Burnett signs, fine. If he won’t sign for $12 million, it’s not fine.

ä Shortstop: Jordy Mercer is it. Who backs him up? Rafael Furcal’s one-year deal with the Marlins pays him $3.5 million, even though he missed all of 2013.

It’s enough to force you to write to Santa, who hopefully has somebody good for the Bucs.