Collier: Pirates coach Bell not concerned with strikeouts

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Before a crackling spring thunderstorm shut down Tuesday night's Pirates game, we had started smartly down a promising path toward a potentially fascinating answer to a little-asked baseball question:

What do you get when you match a pitcher who can't get anyone out at PNC Park against a pitcher who essentially can't get anyone out anywhere?

Minimally, you get the Pirates and Cardinals combining for six first-inning runs, but that was merely a partial answer on a lightning-lit night that looked as if it were headed for something like Pirates 32, Cardinals 18.

As the rain delay wore past an hour, however, it was evident that neither Pirates starter Jonathan Sanchez nor his Cardinals counterpart, Jake Westbrook, would be able to return to the mound, nor would anyone else, and that was a shame.

Westbrook has an 0-5 lifetime record on the North Shore, where the Pirates hit .330 against him. Sanchez entered his third start of the season with an earned run average of 12.96, mostly because he was nicked for nine earned runs in just 31/3 innings in his previous start, which doesn't diminish 12.96 in any way.

It's hard to wrap your head around 12.96. Even if you express it as a dollar amount, it's not much better than a decent price if it happens to be what you just paid to pre-order Duck Dynasty Season 2.

The Pirates desperately needed a solid effort from their rotation the night after James McDonald pitched a couple of innings of live batting practice Monday (oops, that was an actual game) but never found out if they would have gotten one from Sanchez. He allowed two runs in the first, but a one-two-three second polished his ERA to 11.32 before it was washed back to 12.96 by the storm.

Once the postponement was announced, it seemed more useful to focus on a trend in the Pirates' performance that could prove useful, namely the sudden dip in the number of times Jay Bell's hitters are striking out and the not coincidental fact that the ballclub has won four of the past six games.

"I've never mentioned strikeouts to them at all, whatsoever, from the time I came here [in November] until now, and I will not," Bell was saying as the clubhouse emptied into the rainy night. "Part of the thought process behind that is that I believe that when you say, 'Hey, you can't do something,' then you're focused in your mind on not doing something. I believe that hitting is a violent act. I believe it requires an aggressive move back toward the pitcher.

"Whenever you start with a mindset that you have to be overly conservative, the next thing you know you're taking pitches that you should probably be hitting. I think our hitters have been extremely good about preparing themselves to hit and hitting in a particular area. I want them to continue to be aggressive."

After the first week of the season, in which they went 1-5, the Pirates stopped trying to break the world strikeout record and the resultant increase in contact has triggered some competent offense. In games when they've been punched out eight or more times, the Pirates are 2-6. When they've struck out seven times or fewer, they're 4-1.

They had just 26 hits in their first seven games, but have 62 in their past six, a span in which they've hit .301 as a club.

The fact is, even if Jay Bell had used the S words, as in "Stop Striking Out So Much!" there's no guarantee these guys would have put much stock in it. The game as it's played in the 21st century harbors little shame in striking out, and a good number of players find putting the ball in play a hollow consolation if you're going to be out anyway.

Batted balls, however, at least challenge the defense, a notion manager Clint Hurdle insists he has not had difficulty impressing up his roster.

"We haven't been tuned out by these guys," Hurdle said before the rainout. "These guys know what works and what they need to do to make things work. When you watch the teams that play in October and you pick up their numbers, crunch their numbers, look at their walk-to-strikeout ratio, on-base percentage, their pitches per at bat, they all make sense enough to head you in the right direction.

"We've got to find a way to find our rhythm within each individual, and to make sure that individual has a greater goal than, 'It's my at-bat,' because it's our at-bat. It's a team at-bat. Our guys have bought in and continued to grow with that.

"I know Jay delivers a very firm message daily. He's a guy that had to buy in as a hitter and really reaped some huge benefits from applying that buy-in. He went from a guy that worked at-bats, moved the ball around, hit and run, to later in his career when he hit down in the lineup and drove in runs."

When he looks back on an 18-year career, eight of them with the Pirates that included three division championships, Jay Bell considers himself "a high-strikeout guy." In the 12 consecutive seasons he played at least 100 games, Bell averaged 105 strikeouts. Today that seems like a month for some guys.

Apparently as long as he doesn't mention it, the whole strikeouts thing, a better message is getting through.

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Gene Collier: First Published April 17, 2013 4:00 AM


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