Ron Cook: Ray Searage has work cut out this year with Pirates, but he won't mind
January 31, 2016 12:00 AM
Does Pirates pitching wizard Ray Searage have some more magic in him for this season?
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ray Searage is going into the final year of his contract as Pirates pitching coach. He says he wants to stay for the long haul because he enjoys the city, fans and organization. “I’d love to retire as a Pirate.” The team wants to keep Searage because it knows how valuable he is. “He’s special,” general manager Neal Huntington has said. “That’s such a crucial position.” But you know how these things go sometimes. Searage will attract a lot of interest if he becomes a free agent. It’s easy to see the Pirates declining a bidding war. If Searage does leave, it will be as bad as losing Mark Melancon or Francisco Cervelli.
Every pitching move the Pirates made in the offseason had Searage’s name attached to it. The trade for Jon Niese? “Ray will make him better.” The purchase of Kyle Lobstein? “Ray will make him better.” The free-agent signings of Ryan Vogelsong, Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio? “Ray will make ’em all better.”
“I embrace the challenge. I don’t look at it as pressure,” Searage was saying last week. “It’s going to be a process. Neal and Clint [Hurdle] are aware of that. The big thing is to stick with it.”
It’s not surprising that Searage isn’t afraid of the task ahead, the challenge of building a pitching staff that will keep the Pirates competitive with, at least on paper, a significantly lesser lineup after the losses of Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. He was huge in the Pirates’ three consecutive playoff appearances. Anyone can coach Gerrit Cole, a former No. 1 overall pick. But Searage extended A.J. Burnett’s career and helped to make multi-millionaires of Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and A.J. Happ.
“It’s them, not me,” Searage said.
Don’t believe it.
For starters, Searage commands respect from his pitchers because he played the game, “had my spikes in the dirt,” as he likes to say. He was 11-13 with 11 saves for four teams during a seven-year major league career.
The pitchers appreciate Searage’s positivity. He’s not afraid to get after one — “If I see someone feeling sorry for himself, I tell him, ‘I don’t play that game. Shut up and get to work’ ” — but, mostly, he builds constructively.
“I’ve been through the trials and tribulations,” Searage said. “I’ve seen guys who are pitching poorly get the cold shoulder and, when you’re pitching well, the coach is your best friend. I don’t want my guys to ever feel like they’re getting the cold shoulder from me.”
Most of all, the pitchers love how hard Searage works. He gets to know each one individually. He works closely with team video coordinator Kevin Roach and will study tape for hours, comparing a pitcher’s mechanics in good times and bad. He’s always searching for ways to make his pitchers better.
“You want to be a good coach? Do your homework. I do my homework. I’m not doing anything outside the norm,” Searage said.
“These guys aren’t here for me. I’m here for them. In many cases, you find one or two things and — boom — it’s like a snowball effect. If you stick to the process and work hard, I believe good things will happen.”
It’s a good thing Searage likes challenges, because this group of pitchers will provide plenty. The bullpen should be fine with Feliz, Tony Watson and Melancon at the back end, providing Searage can get Feliz back to his form of 2010-11 when he combined for 72 saves. But the rotation looks weak after Cole and Liriano. Searage has to get more out of Jeff Locke; he has worked with Locke this winter to simplify his mechanics and make his delivery consistent from the windup and stretch. He has to figure out Niese, who was dropped from the New York Mets rotation last season, and Vogelsong, who comes off three consecutive mostly miserable seasons with the San Francisco Giants. Lobstein or Nicasio should be next in line if someone fails. Prized young pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon won’t be ready until at least midseason.
Searage said he was impressed with his initial meeting with Niese, who was traded for Walker. “He makes eye contact. You can tell what he says comes not just from his head, but from his heart.” Searage loved when Vogelsong, 38, told him he has plenty left in the tank. “I think he’s going to be a big plus for us. He’s been to the World Series and knows what it’s all about.”
Searage isn’t successful with every pitcher. He still kicks himself for not getting through to James McDonald, who flamed out after a strong first half in 2012, and Charlie Morton, who was traded in the offseason to Philadelphia. “I take it personally,” Searage said. “I feel like I didn’t coach them. I didn’t correct something I needed to.”
The Pirates hope Searage does with Niese, Vogelsong and the others what he did for Liriano, Volquez and Happ. Each signed big multi-year contracts, Liriano to stay with the Pirates, Volquez with the Kansas City Royals and Happ with the Toronto Blue Jays. Searage said he took great pride and satisfaction from watching Volquez celebrate the Royals’ World Series championship last season.
“We had lost [to the Chicago Cubs in the wild-card game] and I was bitter, mad, angry,” Searage said. “I was done with baseball for the time being. I wasn’t going to watch any of the playoff games, but I did watch the two games [Volquez] pitched in the Series. I texted him after the first game. His father had died that day, but he took the time to have a really nice conversation with me. I ended up coming out of it feeling pretty good about myself.”
It’s no wonder.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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