Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage oversees steady progress on mound

jdill@bradenton.comFebruary 17, 2014 

BRADENTON -- It's no secret what makes baseball teams succeed past the regular season: solid pitching.

A team's offense can take you only so far, before dominating arms determine advancement into the postseason.

The Pittsburgh Pirates reeled off 94 wins, dusted off the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card game and took eventual pennant winners St. Louis to the brink of elimination in the NL Division Series.

It was a stirring run for a franchise long stuck in mediocrity.

Fortunes, though, changed last season and a key was the pitching Pittsburgh received as well as the magic of pitching coach Ray Searage.

"He's an extension of us," Pirates closer Jason Grilli said. "Ray's easy to work with. He's been there, done that. He's got the experience. He's only got our best interests at heart. And when you have that as a pitching coach, somebody you can go to and fall back on ... great guy to have in your corner."

Grilli has known Searage for years, dating back when the two were with the Florida Marlins organization.

And Searage, a former big league pitcher earlier in his career, has transformed hurlers coming off average-to-poor seasons into having stellar campaigns.

Former ace A.J. Burnett, who on Sunday completed a

$22.5 million contract with Keystone State rival Philadelphia, sported an earned run average above 5.00 in his final two seasons with the New York Yankees.

That was lowered his two years with Searage, who became the Pirates pitching coach in 2011, to 3.51 in 2012 and last year's 3.30, which tied Burnett's career low for a single season.

Left-hander Francisco Liriano had struggled mostly since his breakout rookie year with the Minnesota Twins in 2006. Sure, Liriano had a sore elbow that needed Tommy John surgery, but it wasn't until his arrival in Pittsburgh last year when the southpaw found a groove.

Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA.

The transformation isn't limited to the starting pitching staff, either.

Reliever Mark Melancon had solid seasons with Houston, before a difficult 2012 with Boston.

Melancon had a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings with the Red Sox, before logging 71 innings and a 1.39 ERA in 2013 with the Bucs.

It's as if Searage is a snake charmer, but there are no miracles with what's happened to the pitching in Pittsburgh over the last few seasons. The Pirates sported a dismal 5.00 team ERA in 2010, the year before Searage was named the club's pitching coach. Since then, they've lowered that mark each year, reaching a best of 3.27 last season.

"My philosophy has been with the organization," Searage said. "Staying aggressive, pitching inside, first pitch strikes and getting ahead and staying ahead. And making something happen with three pitches or less."

That adds to the pre-existing attacking mindset that the Pirates staff already possesses.

This year, Edinson Volquez, was added to the roster to bolster the rotation. He's had his struggles since his early success with Cincinnati.

So another alteration from Searage to get Volquez back to his 2008 form where he was a National League All Star and went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA could be a huge key to Pittsburgh's attempt at going farther than the NLDS appearance last fall.

"When he came here to mini-camp, we instilled in him to make sure that he did his throwing program correctly," Searage said. "You can tell he did work when he left here from mini-camp. All we've got to do now is to slowly keep adding and getting him back to where he was two to three years ago. And to make him feel comfortable."

Also helping the process is the Pittsburgh backstops. While Searage is an extension of the pitchers, the Pirates catchers are an extension of Searage.

Guys like Russell Martin, John Buck and Michael McKenry were solid last year.

"Our catchers, they are so important," Searage said. "Those guys are so important ... just being able to be an extension of me as a pitching coach, taking a trip to the mound where they can save me one."

But if there is one trick to the way Searage operates is to not get caught up in mechanics when he makes a visit to the mound during a game.

Rather, he said he'll make them aware of the situation.

And managing a staff is a tricky proposition, because each pitcher has a different personality.

"Do you have the extrovert or do you have the introvert," Searage said. "... The time you spend with them doing their pens ... watching the games and watching how they conduct themselves in the pressure situations ... you find out what they're made of."

Whatever the secret is, the Pirates have the ingredient -- strong pitching -- to keep postseason dreams going for a second straight year.

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