Sunday, June 30, 2013
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett talks with pitching coach Ray Searage during spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
If you haven't pitched, they say, you don't know pitching.
I don't know pitching.
Never have and never will, no matter how many games are watched, no matter how many questions asked, no matter how many incisive answers offered.
But I do know this: Ray Searage is my choice as the Pirates' first-half MVP.
It's not just that this incessantly incredible 50-30 start has been built on Searage's pitching staff that ranks No. 2 in Major League Baseball with a 3.18 ERA, No. 1 (by a mile) with 12 shutouts, No. 1 (by another mile) with a .226 opponents' batting average, No. 10 with 629 strikeouts, No. 4 with 270 walks allowed.
It's not just that Searage has overcome having 10 pitchers spend 400 days — exactly, no kidding — on the disabled list.
It's not just how Searage has stabilized veterans who struggled before coming here, notably top-dollar guys A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano.
All of that's what a really good pitching coach does.
Want to know what a great pitching coach does?
Ask Jeanmar Gomez.
He arrived over the winter in the most minor of minor trades with the Indians. Should have been a ghost in spring training, a complete afterthought.
But one day in Bradenton, I asked Searage to list all his starting candidates. He named a few, paused, then caught himself and added Gomez.
Was he serious?
Searage: “You'll see.”
Nobody saw much in March. Gomez was mostly a mess. But something changed near the end of Grapefruit ball.
“Ray told me to stop moving my head so much,” Gomez recalled. “It made me do too many things with my body, like I was doing in Cleveland.”
That was it?
“That was it.”
Gomez still doesn't last much beyond 70 pitches, but no one cares. He has a 2.76 ERA in his eight starts and has been essential in helping the rotation navigate all those injuries.
Ask Jason Grilli.
He'd be my unquestioned MVP if limiting the scope to players.
“I knew Ray way back when I was with the Marlins,” Grilli said of his first organization. “My career's come full circle to have a good guy ... who's the same guy I knew back then. It's a pleasure to work with him.”
Grilli, of course, is suddenly the game's best closer under Searage after 15 years adrift.
Ask Mark Melancon.
He pitched so poorly for Boston in early 2012 that the Red Sox sent this former big league closer down to Pawtucket to get right. He then came to the Pirates with the extra weight of being the main piece in the Joel Hanrahan trade.
“More than anything, I needed someone to have confidence in me, who could understand what I was about and what I could do,” Melancon said. “That's what I got from Ray. He understood my delivery from the first day. He brought out the best in me.”
Melancon has been equally fantastic.
Ask Tony Watson.
He laughed when the topic was raised.
“That's because Ray will have that effect on you,” Watson said. “He's always making sure you're having fun. Even when things aren't going well.”
One lousy outing early this season brought Searage to the mound for one of those odd-looking conferences where everyone covers their mouths.
“Ray looks me dead in the eye and says, ‘I don't have anything to say to you. I'm just waiting for other guy out there to get warm,' ” Watson remembered. “Couldn't help it, I busted out. Good thing I had that glove up.”
Watson has been so good Clint Hurdle now sees him as closer material.
Ask Jared Hughes.
“You know, I could tell you about things he's done for my delivery or ways he's helped form me as a pitcher and a person,” Hughes said. “But the best thing I can say is that I remember what it was like in the low minors, the way everyone would talk about him: ‘Oh, just wait till you get to Searage. Man, that guy will take care of everything.' And then when I did get to Ray, he was even better than advertised.”
Ask Charlie Morton, whose entire career — and personal confidence, for that matter — has been painstakingly shaped by Searage.
“He's a good man,” Morton said. “He cares.”
All this would make the man blush in shades even the occasionally purple-faced Hurdle couldn't match.
“I am humbled by these guys. I am honored. I'm the luckiest man in baseball to come to work every day with these guys,” Searage was saying before the game Saturday against the Brewers. “But they deserve the credit. Not me. They're the ones on the bump. I'm just standing behind them.”
Uh-uh. Sorry, Ray.
Yes, Neal Huntington and his pro scouts deserve credit. Russell Martin does, too, for superlative game-calling and receiving. But when every guy on the staff shy of, what, Jonathan Sanchez and Mike Zagurski, gets the job done, the bulk of that credit goes to the common denominator.
Got my own Searage tale.
Late on the eve of the 2010 season finale in Miami, near the end of that 105-loss disaster, I'd reported that the Pirates were about to fire John Russell as manager. Searage had come up from the minors at midseason and showed immediate results, but his job couldn't have looked any more certain than anyone else's. Players, as they're wont to do, sought more information. A couple called. Others texted.
All had basically the same message: What about Ray? ... No way Ray will go. ... They can't get rid of Ray.
They didn't of course, and you don't have to know much about pitching to see why.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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The Associated Press
June 30, 2013
Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jason Grilli (27 saves, 1.77 ERA) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (.247, 20 HR, 53 RBI) celebrate after the Pirates defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 in a baseball game Saturday, June 29, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have won eight games in a row, and fans are starting to notice.
After all, the Pirates own the best record in all of baseball.
Pittsburgh beat the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 on Saturday night in front of its fifth straight sellout crowd at home. The Pirates have never had that many consecutive capacity crowds since moving into their new ballpark in 2001.
Long the third-most popular team in a three-team town behind the NFL's Steelers and NHL's Penguins, the Pirates are suddenly becoming a hot ticket.
''The energy of the crowds has been unbelievable and we've been soaking it all up,'' said Pirates closer Jason Grilli, who earned the save. ''You absorb it and try to use it to your advantage. We're playing for ourselves but we're also playing for about 40,000 people in the stands and an entire city.
''People are dusting off their Pirates shirts and coming out in droves, and we're trying to give them what they want to see.''
Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones homered, and Francisco Lirianopitched six strong innings to lead the surging Pirates.
Alvarez hit his 20th home run with one out in the second inning to extend his hitting streak to 12 games and help the Pirates to their longest winning streak since 2004., which has endured 20 consecutive losing seasons, is a major league-best 50-30.
Jones hit a drive to the shrubbery in straightaway center field, his seventh homer, to lead off the fourth inning and increase the Pirates' lead to 2-0.
That was enough for Liriano (7-3), who improved to 4-1 in five home starts this season.
''We're having fun, we're playing hard and we're giving everything we have,'' Liriano said.
Liriano gave up one run and seven hits in six innings with one walk and six strikeouts. Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Grilli each pitched one scoreless inning of relief. Grilli recorded his 27th save in 28 opportunities.
''Frankie, for as efficient as he was in giving up one run, there were only about six or seven sequences where he threw back-to-back strikes,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. ''But when he needed to make a pitch, he made a pitch.''
Grilli was pitching for the first time in six days after having his worst outing of the season. He gave up three runs against the Los Angeles Angels in a non-save situation last Sunday before the Pirates held on for a 10-9 win.
''He's our guy,'' Hurdle said. ''He was well-rested and I wasn't the least bit nervous about going to him.''
Donovan Hand (0-1) allowed both home runs but turned in a solid five-inning performance in his second major league start.
Hand was pleased with his outing, except for the home run to Alvarez that cleared the right-field stands, hit a tree and bounced into the Allegheny River.
''I tried to go up and in and left a fat pitch over the middle in his hot zone, and he crushed it,'' said Hand, who pitched 4 2-3 scoreless innings in his first start June 28 against Atlanta. ''I was aggressive, which is exactly what I wanted to do, just building off of the last start because they swing it a lot.''
Hand has made a good impression on Brewers manager Ron Roenicke.
''I thought Donny threw the ball really well,'' Roenicke said. ''He understands how to pitch. He understands how to throw strikes.''
Carlos Gomez had two hits for the Brewers, who lost their fifth straight game. He singled with one out in the sixth inning and scored Milwaukee's run on Yuniesky Betancourt's single with two outs.
Brewers shortstop Jean Segura extended his hitting streak to 11 games, but second baseman Rickie Weeks' run ended at a career-best 13 games.
Pittsburgh has won four straight games against Milwaukee and eight of 10 after losing nine in a row.
''We're playing good baseball,'' Hurdle said. ''It's nice to get to 50 wins but we're just trying to meet the demands of the game, honestly self-evaluate and get better every day. There is still a long way to go.''
NOTES: Milwaukee LF Ryan Braun (bruised left thumb) is scheduled to a swing a bat Tuesday for the first time since going on the disabled list, retroactive to June 10. ... Pittsburgh LHP Wandy Rodriguez (strained left forearm) won't make a scheduled rehab start Monday for Triple-A Indianapolis after experiencing discomfort in his forearm Friday during a bullpen session. ... Pirates RHP A.J. Burnett (strained right calf) is scheduled to pitch a simulated game Tuesday. That could be the last step before he is activated from the disabled list. ... Brewers RF Norichika Aoki didn't start for the first time since May 30 as Roenicke decided to rest him. Aoki pinch-hit in the ninth inning and flied out. ... The three-game series concludes Sunday with Milwaukee RHP Kyle Lohse (3-6, 3.69) facing Pittsburgh RHP Charlie Morton (1-1, 2.81).
Saturday, June 29, 2013
The Associated Press
June 29, 2013
Andrew McCutchen (.293, 9 HR, 41 RBI) shakes hands with first base coach Rick Sofield after hitting a homerun in last night's 10-3 win over the Brewers.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Look who has the best record in the major leagues.
Gerrit Cole overcame a rocky start to become the first Pirates pitcher to win his first four career starts in more than a century and the Pirates won their seventh straight, 10-3 over the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Pirates moved a game up in the NL Central when the St. Louis Cardinals lost later at Oakland. At 49-30, Pittsburgh has the best record in baseball.
Cole (4-0) gave up three runs in the first inning but no more as he made it through six innings, allowing eight hits with three walks and three strikeouts. Nick Maddox started 4-0 in his first four starts in 1907.
''It's really a team effort,'' Cole said. ''I've pitched pretty well but I've gotten a lot of support defensively and our offense has been very opportunistic. It feels good to say I'm 4-0 but it feels even better because the team is playing well.''
The Pirates are on their longest winning streak since running off 10 in a row in 2004.
The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992 and the 20-year stretch of futility is the longest in major North American professional team sports history. However, they are not getting caught up in being in the rarified air of being 19 games over .500 in June.
''We're just focused on winning that day,'' Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. ''Our guys our very focused on taking it pitch to pitch.''
Johnny Hellweg (0-1) failed to get out of the second inning in his major league debut, giving up seven runs - five earned - in 1 2-3 innings.
''He didn't come out with very good stuff,'' Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. ''He was trying to aim the ball instead of throw it. That happens a lot of times when it's a guy's first time out.''
Starling Marte had a double and triple among his three hits, and just missed a homer in the eighth when he flied out to deep center field.
McCutchen had three hits, including his ninth home run, and three RBIs for Pittsburgh. Pedro Alvarez added two hits and Neil Walkerhit a two-run double to start a seven-run second inning in which the Pirates sent 12 batters to the plate.
Alvarez extended his hitting streak to 11 games
Ryan Reid pitched three scoreless innings for his first career save. He was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis on June 3 after spending seven seasons in the minor leagues.
''It's really nice to get a save but it's even better to help the team win,'' said Reid, who has a 1.00 ERA in six games. ''I feel good about being able to come up here and help the team keep winning.''
Carlos Gomez, who missed the previous three games with a sprained right shoulder, had two hits for the Brewers. Jean Seguraand Juan Francisco also had two hits apiece. Rickie Weeks ran his hitting streak to 13 games.
Walker's double got the Pirates to 3-2, scoring Garrett Jones and Alvarez, who led off with singles.
The Pirates then loaded the bases as Hellweg walked Travis Snider and Cole around a groundout by Jordy Mercer. Marte then singled home Walker with the tying run.
The Pirates went ahead when Russell Martin followed by hitting a grounder up the middle that Segura, the shortstop, misplayed for an error, allowing Snider and Cole to score. McCutchen and Alvarez followed with RBI singles to knock the 6-foot-9 Hellweg from the game.
''We had some trouble with (Hellweg) in the first inning,'' McCutchen said. ''He's so big and he was throwing sinkers from a downhill angle at a time when there still were shadows on the field. Then we got adjusted to him.''
Milwaukee acquired Hellweg and Segura, who leads the National League with 104 hits, last July from the Los Angeles Angles in a trade for ace pitcher Zack Greinke. Hellweg was 7-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 14 starts with Triple-A Nashville this season.
''I wanted to have a good pace, I thought that was important in my first game, but I really started rushing things, especially in that second inning,'' Hellweg said.
The Brewers jumped on Cole for three quick runs.
A walk to Norichika Aoki and singles by Segura and Gomez loaded the bases and Aramis Ramirez walked to force in a run. A second run scored when Jonathan Lucroy grounded into a double play and Francisco capped the inning with an RBI single.
However, the 3-0 lead held up only for one inning, and the Pirates added on runs following their seven-run second. Marte hit an RBI double in the third and tripled in the sixth and scored on McCutchen's double. McCutchen homered off Michael Gonzalez in the eighth.
''I was on the ropes and the pitch count was getting up there in that first inning but I got some groundballs in the second, guys made some really good plays behind and that settled me down,'' Cole said.
NOTES: Brewers 1B Corey Hart will miss the season. He is scheduled to have surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left knee July 26. Hart has been on the disabled list all season after having right knee surgery in January. ... Snider left the game after six innings with a bruised right foot. ... Milwaukee activated RHP Hiram Burgos from the 15-day disabled list and optioned him to Triple-A Nashville. ... The Pirates recalled INF/OF Josh Harrison from Triple-A Indianapolis and optioned C Tony Sanchez to the same club. ... Milwaukee RHP Donovan Hand (0-0, 2.37) faces Pittsburgh LHP Francisco Liriano (6-3, 2.30) on Saturday night.