Pirates catcher Russell Martin has been behind the plate for a number of all-time greats in his career.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Learning the tendencies and personalities of a pitching staff is difficult enough. When Russell Martin joined the Pirates, he had to comprehend one that was still evolving.
He had to learn James McDonald, who has plenty of talent that he needs to display on a consistent basis. He had to learn Jeff Locke, who has limited experience facing major league lineups. He had to learn Jonathan Sanchez, who is trying to rediscover a high level of performance after a season full of injuries and a lack of command.
Learning the pitching staff, he said, requires him to learn how to handle the pitchers.
"Are they guys that you want to give a pat on the back," Martin said, "or guys that you have to get after a little bit?"
Martin had numerous bullpen sessions during spring training to familiarize himself with the staff, which he said was the most important part of assimilating. But he has a broader body of knowledge from which to draw when determining how to handle particular pitchers.
"What I feel would work, how I feel that person would react based on past experiences with other people that are kind of similar," Martin said. "I try to figure out, OK, this guy reminds me of a certain type of person. I remember working with this person."
Martin has worked with some impressive pitchers during his seven years in the majors. He caught Greg Maddux briefly while with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 and again in '08. He caught Hiroki Kuroda while with the Dodgers and New York Yankees, and in Los Angeles he caught Clayton Kershaw, who won the 2011 Cy Young Award and led the National League in ERA each of the past two seasons.
Martin also worked with CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera during his two seasons in New York. Sometimes, he can identify traits in those great pitchers he has worked with that might benefit members of his current staff.
"I recognize certain things, certain consistencies between pitchers that have had a lot of success and what made them good," Martin said. "Most of the time it's just their attitude, and how they compete, and their ability to have a short-term memory when things don't go too well. A lot of it has to do with their work ethic and how they believe in themselves."
But Martin only can pass along the information. It's up to the pitcher to use it.
"I can't make the strides and the steps for them," he said.
Trial and error helps Martin adjust to the personalities. He also relies on his instincts.
"You kind of got to go with your gut," he said. "When your gut tells you something, normally it steers you in the right direction more often than not. If you go with your first instinct and what your gut tells you, I'll take that over anything."
Second line of defense
The Pirates nudged across one first-inning run against St. Louis Cardinals starter Shelby Miller Wednesday night, touching him for four hits, two for extra bases. After that, he retired 15 consecutive batters.
Once the Pirates reached the Cardinals' bullpen with a 2-0 lead, they took advantage, padding their cushion with three more runs and forcing the Cardinals to use three relievers in the eighth inning.
"It can change a series," Travis Snider said. "Obviously, this [was] our last game of the series with them, but you want to get the relievers exposed. Get the starting pitcher out of there as early as possible, especially at the beginning of the series. That way, you can beat up the bullpen, and they're going to be grinding the last couple games of the series."
General manager Neal Huntington has described the need to force opposing starters out of the game as early as possible to feast on the middle relievers.
"We've really kind of put more emphasis on it," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've explained to our guys the importance of it as you break down games and why you want to get to that second line of defense rather than the bridge to the closer. And they understand that, but actually to show it out, play it out, numbers, here are the guys that do pitch in those roles, versus here are the guys who are the bridge to the closer. Who do you want to face?"
A lineup can knock out an opposing starter by getting hits and scoring runs. They also can elevate his pitch count by attempting to work counts and employing a selective approach at the plate.
Entering the weekend, the Pirates saw 3.92 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked ninth in the major leagues.
Looking ahead: Phillies
After finishing four games against the team with the majors' best pitching staff, the Pirates play four games against the team with one of the worst.
They enter a road series with the Philadelphia Phillies, who ranked 28th in the majors in team ERA with a 4.84 mark entering the weekend, Monday at Citizens Bank Park.
Part of the inflated ERA resulted from the outings of Roy Halladay, the 35-year-old two-time Cy Young winner who had a 7.63 ERA through three starts. Lefty Cole Hamels, who had a 3.05 ERA and struck out a batter per inning last season, had a 6.46 ERA entering the weekend.
The combination of their pitching staff and 3.44 runs per game, which ranked 14th in the National League, gave them a 6-10 record entering the weekend.