Top 5 Pittsburgh Sports Moments of 2020
By Jack Hillgrove
Ah, yes. 2020. Perhaps the most cliché year of our lifetimes if there is such a thing. Every once in a while I’ll come across the Match.com commercial where Satan meets up with a woman named “2020,” and I can’t help but laugh. In the most comical way, I think that is the perfect summary for how this year has gone.
Not only were there depressing and sad moments nationwide this past year, but there were also several as it pertained to sports in the city of Pittsburgh.
Having said that, for my first piece for the site, I am going to attempt to name the top 5 Pittsburgh Sports moments of 2020. Here’s what I got:
#5: Bryan Rust’s Hat Trick and Evegeni Malkin’s Four Assist Performance vs. Ottawa (March 3)
I know what you might be thinking: The Penguins stamp on 2020 will be forever stained by the egg they laid against the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but this was an impressive performance from two of the Pens best forwards that couldn’t come at a better time for the team.
Pittsburgh comes back home after a four-game road trip and a six-game losing streak, dropping key matchups to conference foes like Washington, Toronto, and Buffalo. Losing those six tilts pretty much screwed the Pens out of a top four seed in the bubble, but the boys bounced back QUICKLY when they were back in friendly confines.
In the first 99 seconds of the game, the Pens went up 2-0 thanks to goals from John Marino and Conor Sheary. The first of Rust’s three came in the final seconds of the first period on a power play. Rust tacked on goals two and three in the late stages of the game.
As for Geno, his dominant ability to take over games was on full display in PPG Paints Arena on March 3rd. He assisted on Marino’s goal to start the game, and all three of Bryan Rust’s. The Pens would then finish the regular season after that game going 2-2 before the shutdown, but it makes you wonder if the season weren’t halted, what a performance like this one would have done for the team’s momentum down the stretch.
#4: Pitt Basketball’s Comeback Win @ Northwestern (December 9)
If you know me, you know I am a massive Pitt fan, so I had to sneak something related to the Blue and Gold in here.
Pitt trailed for 39 minutes and 54 seconds on the road against a Big 10 team in Northwestern. They were being outplayed and outshot for most of the game, and were able to put together good offensive runs and force turnovers down the stretch in order to steal the W.
The individual performance of Justin Champagnie was incredible. 20 points, 20 rebounds, and the dunk with six seconds left that ended up being the game winner. Champagnie ended up going for another 20-20 performance in the next game against Gardner-Webb and became the first Panther to do so twice in a season since Dejuan Blair in 2008-09.
Anyone who has followed Pitt hoops for as long as I have knows all too well the decline the program has faced the past decade, and it’s wins like these that put the program back in the right direction.
#3: The Steelers selecting WR Chase Claypool 49th Overall in the NFL Draft (April 24)
Death, taxes, and the Steelers drafting good wide receivers. I remember when Claypool was selected that a lot of people, myself included, didn’t know a whole lot about the guy, and thought they should have gone with RB JK Dobbins, who was available.
But at the end of the day, we are fans, and they are scouts. As I researched more about who would end up with the nickname “Mapletron,” I could not help but get excited.
He was the first prospect at the combine with his height to run a 4.4 40-yard dash since Calvin Johnson did it when he came out of Georgia Tech. Scouts also said he could end up being as good as Mike Evans for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Can someone say, “Let’s run through a wall?”
As of this writing, Claypool’s rookie campaign has been solid, having almost 900 all purpose yards and 10 total touchdowns. While he is still very much young and has shown there is much room for improvement, you can’t help but think that Claypool can become the top WR for this team for the next several years.
#2: The Pirates Losing to the Cleveland Indians and Clinching the Number One Overall Pick in the 2021 Draft (September 25)
I think it’s safe to say that the Pirates 60-game season and the managerial debut of Derek Shelton was an absolute dumpster fire, especially when it came to the pitching staff. But on this day, Buccos fans everywhere saw clearly, that a shot at top prospect Kumar Rocker has come to life.
Before I talk about what Rocker brings to the table, let me briefly recap this game because it was hilarious.
The Pirates were up 3-1 as they went into the bottom of the 9th inning at Cleveland. But Chris Stratton, who went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 8th, gave up three runs on three hits and a walk-off double to Cesar Hernandez to clinch the Pirates having the worst record in baseball and the eventual top pick of the 2021 draft.
Now, for the player everyone wants, Vanderbilt stud pitcher Kumar Rocker. He’s everyone’s top prospect for 2021, and has the ability to completely change the landscape of the Pirates pitching staff in the future. He has great fastball command, and a killer breaking ball that has heavily contributed to his 142 collegiate strikeouts. If the Pirates take him with the top pick on July 11th, 2021, the future of the pitching rotation in Pittsburgh is extremely bright.
#1 Ben Roethlisberger’s First Game Post-Elbow Surgery (September 14)
There were a ton of questions surrounding the 38-year-old’s ability to play at a high level after his reconstructive elbow surgery that sat him out for most of the 2019 season. A lot of people, especially the ones who cover the NFL for a living, counted him out and called for his retirement. However, the Steelers first game of 2020 proved the doubters wrong.
The Steelers took down the Giants on Monday Night Football 26-16 which was their first of 11 wins to start the 2020 campaign. The story of the game was the play of Big Ben, who threw for 229 yards and 3 TD’s in his first game back.
In typical Ben fashion, he said postgame that “It wasn’t about him individually” and “I’m just glad we got the win,” but to me, this game was 100% about Ben individually. These three touchdowns proved to the doubters and Steelers fans all over the world that Big Ben could still bring it.
Look, I know that the timing of this being number ne on the list seems off since Ben has dropped off hard down the stretch of the season, but his second half performance against the Colts gave me hope that he can still play at a high level, and that he is still good enough to lead this team deep into the playoffs. This was number one to me because it proved that this old cowboy still has some fight left in him, and he’ll ride it out for as long as the man upstairs lets him.