Bay's backward step a multi-part mystery

Pirates' franchise player has few explanations for decline

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So, Jason Bay was asked shortly after belting his 17th home run Saturday night against the Cincinnati Reds' Todd Coffey: What was the pitch?

"Slider," he replied.

Really? Pretty impressive, considering it landed in the visitors' bullpen, 420 feet away.

"Yeah. Same pitch I missed by a foot just before that. I was setting him up."

Really?

"No. I wish."

How, then, to explain someone looking so formidable on one swing, so fooled on the one right before it?

The answer to the former is easy: Bay has averaged 33 home runs per full season since joining the Pirates in 2003, and he has a hearty 17 so far this season. This is a power hitter of some pedigree.

But the part about missing so badly?

Hard to say.

And that might be the core explanation for why Bay, a two-time All-Star, a National League rookie of the year and the unquestioned anchor of the Pirates' present and future, has taken such a dispiriting step backward this season:

No one knows.

Yes, his home run total should look fine by summer's end. So will his RBIs, as he has a team-best 71.

But his average, .292 for his career before this year, is at .260. His on-base percentage, .391 for his career, is at .335 thanks to a 20 percent dip in walks. His doubles, averaging 37 for his career, are at 17. He recently went a month without one.

Bay, true to his straight-shooting personality, minces no words when asked to assess it.

"I set the bar pretty high for myself those first three years, and I know that," he said. "Everyone has the down years, too, and I know I haven't been as good offensively as I've been before. Believe me, I know."

He paused.

"But I also take a little bit of solace in that, if I look back at the end of this year and drive in close to 100 runs or more ... hey, if that's my bad year, that might say something, too. I'm not trying to beat myself up too much over it. I just want to finish strong."

Bay answered a host of questions aimed at delving deeper ...

The glove

Start with his health.

All through 2006, Bay concealed an injury to his left knee, never citing any physical reason for why he had stopped trying to steal bases after doing so effortlessly in 2005. In November, he had minor surgery on the knee.

Lately, he has been lugging large packs of ice on his knee again. Only it is his other one.

The Pirates' short-term diagnosis is that it is nothing serious, merely fatigue from the compensating it had to last year.

Again, Bay dismisses it.

"I don't really know what it is but, believe me, it's not hampering me that much."

He added that his surgically repaired knee is fine.

At the same time, he freely acknowledges he has lost a stride or two.

"The bottom line is that I'm not as fast as I was three years ago. That's not an excuse. That's just how it is. There are some balls I'm not getting to in the field, and there isn't that push on the basepaths."

That has been painfully evident, especially in left field.

Bay has been plagued by poor jumps, dubious judgment and a failure to be aggressive, the sum of which has caused some to accuse him of looking tentative or even lacking passion.

Given Bay's history, the latter seems unlikely, as it would represent a stark departure in attitude.

His take, simply, is that he has not performed well.

"I don't feel like I've regressed to the point where I'm some terrible outfielder. But I can say that I know I've played better."

The Pirates' management quietly has taken steps to address Bay's shortcomings. For the past month or so, he has been positioned closer to the left-field line, the better to cut off doubles. He also has been moved a step or two back -- as have other outfielders -- to make it easier to go back on deep balls.

This would explain Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia's assessment in late June that the Pirates' outfield was playing "soft on doubles."

There even has been discussion at upper levels of the Pirates' management that Bay might wind up in right field, which has far less ground to cover than PNC Park's mammoth left-center gap.

Bay sounds amenable.

"A few years ago, I really felt like left field was best suited for me. And I think it still might be, but there are a lot of balls where I'm just a step or two off."

The arm

Bay's nine outfield assists rank fifth in the National League.

Never has a statistic been more misleading.

Beginning in full force with that series in Anaheim, when the Angels turned just about every poke to left field into extra bases, teams have run liberally against Bay. Even a shallow popup to left is cause for tagging up.

Bay never had a strong arm, even before a torn labrum in his right shoulder was repaired in late 2003, a procedure significant enough that it often derails a pitcher's career. But it never seemed so clear a liability until this season.

He has only one explanation there.

"My sister got the arm in the family," he said with a small laugh. "How about that? She's a world-class left-handed pitcher."

Lauren Bay has been a mainstay on the Canadian national softball team.

"Look, I'll be the first to admit I don't have the best arm in the majors," he continued. "I'm sure when teams are in scouting meetings, they're talking about that just like teams talk about Juan Pierre. But different guys have different traits. Pierre is a great player in other ways."

Asked if the shoulder has hindered him, he replied flatly, "It's never been better since the surgery than it is now, actually."

The bat

Most mystifying -- and costly -- to the Pirates has been Bay's diminishing offense. Manager Jim Tracy has confessed to losing sleep over it. Hitting coach Jeff Manto no doubt has done likewise.

Bay, to be sure, is handling it even harder.

"Anyone who knows that young man knows that this hasn't been easy for him," Tracy said. "He's accustomed to performing at an elite level and, even though this happens to the best of them, it doesn't make it any easier to take."

Bay has emerged from that six-week coma at the plate by batting .339 -- 19 for 56 -- his past 15 games. There have been four home runs in that span, too, and there could be more beginning tonight in Phoenix, where Bay traditionally has torn apart Chase Field.

But the lack of confidence, as was clear with the strange sequence of sliders Saturday, still creeps in there.

"It's not like I feel overmatched," Bay said. "It's more like a feeling where you're 0-2 before you get in the box, where there's no rhythm with the count or anything about the at-bat. Even from game to game ... I go out there and get three hits and think, 'Oh, I'm back.' And I go out the next day feeling like I haven't gotten a hit in two months."

Some have tracked a drop in his pull power.

Anything to that?

"No, it's nothing like that. I've just been fighting myself. For me, it's all about that comfort factor. I've had times this year where I went to the plate not thinking about anything other than just making contact. You can't really play that way."

Is it getting better?

"No question. You can see that."

The heart

It has been seen so many times in Pittsburgh: A talented player says all the right things, does all the right things, then wants out when the losing becomes too much. Brian Giles. Jason Kendall. Now, Jack Wilson would eagerly join Detroit.

Bay is entering that tenure territory, so it might be reasonable to ask if he, too, is getting engulfed by a franchise headed for its 15th consecutive losing season.

"There have been times where it's been tough. I'll admit that," he replied. "You endure it, whether you like it or not. All of us weren't here for the first 14 years, but we've inherited it. It's there. I know the fans in Pittsburgh are frustrated, but we are, too."

Last year, Bay universally was recognized as the clubhouse leader, but that role seems to have been assumed more by a few others this season. Given the somewhat spread-out dynamic of that group, it is difficult to detect what that means for Bay.

This much seems certain: He still is longing for success at a team level, something evident in his upbeat body language after Pirates victories.

"I want to turn it around. I'd love to see it happen. But everyone's looking for some overnight answer. How do you do that? How do you just flip the wall switch? That's the tough part. Here we are, after all this time, still trying to find that."

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Jason Bay is hitting .260 this season with 104 hits, 17 home runs and 71 RBIs.
Click photo for larger image.

More Coverage:

Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

TODAY

Game: Pirates (LHP Tom Gorzelanny 9-6, 3.55) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (RHP Micah Owings 5-5, 4.91), 9:40 p.m., Chase Field.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Key matchup: Jason Bay vs. the Chase fences. He has a .347 career average in Phoenix ... 17 for 49 ... with seven home runs.

Of note: No National League team is hotter than Arizona's Baby Backs, nicknamed for their youth. They have won 13 of 15, including a three-game weekend sweep of the Dodgers in Los Angeles


MINOR-LEAGUE REPORT

Monday's results

INDIANAPOLIS (58-56) was off.

ALTOONA (58-54) was off.

LYNCHBURG (47-62) won at Salem, 7-4. RHP Serguey Linares (3-6, 5.01) allowed three runs in six innings. RF Brad Corley (.280) hit his 11th home run and went 3 for 4 with two doubles and three RBIs. LF Jamie Romak (.235) went 1 for 4.

HICKORY (55-57) won at Savannah, 7-2. RHP Mike Crotta (8-5, 4.36) pitched six scoreless innings and allowed two hits. 1B Kent Sakomoto (.281) went 2 for 3 with a walk. CF Albert Laboy (.270) hit his fifth home run and went 1 for 5 with three RBIs.

STATE COLLEGE (22-24) beat Mahoning Valley, 6-2. RHP Matt Foust (2-3, 2.92) pitched five scoreless innings and allowed four hits. LHP Danny Moskos (4.50), the Pirates' first-round draft pick in June making his New York-Penn League debut, allowed one run and three hits in two innings of relief. He struck out one. LF Marcus Davis (.262) hit his sixth home run and went 2 for 3 with a sacrifice fly.

BRADENTON (15-23) was off.


Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Jason Bay misses a ball hit by the Reds' David Ross on April 24.
Click photo for larger image.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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