Pirates pitching coach Searage's positive vibe rubs off on his charges

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Ray Searage threw a fastball, slider and changeup for seven seasons in the big leagues as a left-handed reliever in the 1980s. But his biggest impact on the game may be unfolding in Pittsburgh in this season of rebirth.

The Pirates pitching staff will enter the postseason with four 10-game winners, a 3.27 staff ERA that ranks third in baseball, the lowest opponent slugging percentage against at .341, and the second lowest opponent batting average against at .238.

Credit can certainly be awarded to others in the organization, to the addition of catcher Russell Martin and the defensive philosophy that has produced the highest percentage of ground ball outs in baseball.

But the impact of Searage is unmistakable, say Pirates players. His unrelenting positive outlook has helped the most surprising staff in baseball thrive.

"He's let me be myself. He's figured me out in the past year and a half," said veteran A.J. Burnett, who collected a 10th win Friday night. "I've been around a lot of pitching coaches and I've had some great ones. Ray cares. He cares so much. He throws every pitch out there with us."

Searage worked his way through baseball's ranks as a player from the majors to minors and back again.

The son of a Long Island, N.Y. Catholic family, Searage played for the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers during his major league career.

His past seeps into his instruction.

"I try and give them my two cents of what happened to me in that period of time," Searage said. "I'll give them a little bit of heads up on what to expect but they're the ones who are going to have to make the final decision, decide if this old guy knows what he's talking about or he's full of crap."

But there's no pretense with Searage, said Jim Benedict, the team's special assistant to the general manager, who has had a large part in the staff's success as well.

"Coaches give and players take. And that's OK. That's the way it's supposed to be," Benedict said. "You have a coach that's taking? You have a problem. He has none of that. That's the beauty of the guy."

As a coach, Searage has had nearly every pitching job there is.

He spent seven years at various positions in the Pirates minor league system before being promoted three years ago.

"It's not really done like that anymore," Benedict said. "Baseball is all about the struggle and how you handle it. That's the way to longevity. Ray paid his dues -- Venezuelan winter ball, minor league coordinating jobs, the bullpen job here. He's done it the right way. When it's all said and done and he's sitting on his couch at the end of his career he's going to look back and say I did this the right way."

His reputation was known throughout the system as a coach who fixed problems, big problems.

"Some guys had throwing problems where they couldn't throw a ball straight -- they were getting sent to him. Or they couldn't even play catch and they were getting sent to him," left-handed reliever Tony Watson said.

Watson heard, but never met him until spring training this year.

When Watson reached Class A baseball, Searage had moved to AA Altoona. When Watson advanced to the Eastern League, Searage had just moved up to Class AAA Indianapolis. When Watson was promoted there, Searage had returned to the big leagues.

"Guys would get sent down, you'd hear stories about how great of a pitching coach he was," Watson said. "He's been the last guy cut out of spring training. The first guy on the team and everywhere on the roster. He's seen it all."

Charlie Morton remembers some dark times just a few short years ago. His ERA soared to 12 in 2010, and he was sent to the minors.

Searage, along with Benedict, helped identify a change in mechanics that could help.

Morton lowered his arm slot, and he has been reborn.

"It's the kind of thing where, I am where I am in large part because of Ray," said Morton, who has reached a comfort level with Searage. "We are dynamic individuals. He not only understands that, but appreciates it.

"I think he's more in tune with the purpose or the reason as to why I'd be saying something or being a little crazy. I think he can look past that and just be like Charlie's just got some things on his mind. Now, he just tells me to just go out. To just shut up and pitch pretty much."

For Jeff Locke, who has struggled in the second half, the beauty of Searage is that he doesn't preach, leave a player in the dark, and is easy to communicate with.

"What makes him so strong and so good is that he does care so much about us," Locke said. "He's not a pitching coach because it's a job for him. There are games I've come out of when he gives me a big hug and says I'm so proud of you. Like a father would."

Said rookie right-hander Gerrit Cole: "When I came into spring training, he just said keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It's been a great relationship ever since."

The Pirates team ERA was better in the first half, and there have been issues, but they still rank fourth in shutouts (16), and have surrendered the fewest home runs in baseball, at 101.

"It's a credit to them. We have not lost confidence in anybody out there. We know the ups and downs will occur. We just stay positive and we take one game at a time," Searage said. "We can't get back to yesterday and can't project tomorrow. This moment. This moment in time is what we're going to worry about."

That positivity? It's still there.

"This is a learned quality. Being brought up Catholic you're always thinking about when the other shoe is going to fall," Searage said. "It had to be a process as I played through baseball.

"I stay positive because they're going to feed off me. But it's not a show. It's real. I'm just like, hey forget about that, let's go get today."


Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1959 and Twitter @JennMenendez. First Published September 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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