Doing it Ray's way
Ray Searage talks with Chris Resop, right, in a game Aug. 3 at PNC Park. Pirates players say Searage's message to each pitcher is different when he makes a mound visit. Starter James McDonald: "He knows what buttons to push for each guy."
Ray Searage has worked his way up the ranks in the minor and major leagues since 1994.
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Ray Searage was a bit nervous when he interviewed with newly hired Pirates manager Clint Hurdle for the team's pitching coach position last year.
His guard was up because he had never met Hurdle, and Hurdle was a bit intimidating in that November meeting, Searage admits.
The job interview seemed a bit sterile. Searage was giving safe answers, but things didn't feel right.
"After a couple of minutes, I just said, 'This ain't going to work,' " Searage said. " 'This ain't me.' Then a couple of expletives came out, and it kind of broke the ice."
Searage got the job -- not because of his free-flowing nature but because of his extensive knowledge of the Pirates staff, Hurdle said. But his take-me-as-I-am mentality is symbolic of Pirates pitchers this season.
The pitching staff does not have many arms that overpower opposing batters. It is a staff that pitches to contact -- meaning most batters will put balls in play. Pirates pitchers are effective when they pitch to those strengths. They struggle when they try to do too much.
Lately, they've struggled. Now it's up to Searage, the man who guided the staff's remarkable turnaround from last season, to again right the ship.
Searage's first season as a major league coach was in 2010 when he worked in the bullpen under then-Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. But his experience with professional pitching spans several decades.
He spent 16 years as a professional pitcher, splitting his time between the major and minor leagues. He made 254 career appearances in the major leagues -- playing for the Mets, Brewers, White Sox and Dodgers -- before retiring in 1992.
But he did not stay away from the game for long. He became a minor league pitching coach in '94 and slowly worked his way up the ranks -- much as he had done as a player two decades earlier.
Pirates reliever Jason Grilli worked with Searage in 2000 and '01 when both were in the Marlins system.
"Same guy," Grilli said. "Always lighthearted, knows how to not only be a great pitching coach and mentor, but to be your friend, too. A [former] player can relate to another player. That's why I think they make good coaches -- because they've been there."
Searage joined the Pirates organization in '03 and has worked in nearly every level of the minor league system. He was in Venezuela as pitching coach for the Magallanes of the Venezuela Winter League when he received a call from Hurdle to fly to Pittsburgh for an interview.
He became the interim pitching coach late in the '10 season when then-manager John Russell fired Kerrigan. That made Searage an obvious candidate for the full-time job. And it didn't take long for Hurdle to realize Searage was the obvious hire.
"He's very simplistic in his evaluation, but he's got a lot of depth in knowing the person and knowing the skill set of the individual pitcher," Hurdle said. "What he can bring, how he can help develop that man as he moves forward. All the questions I put forth, he answered, he answered to the point, spot on to what I was looking for."
Hurdle didn't interview another candidate after speaking with Searage, saying he didn't want to be "wasteful" of their time.
"My mind was made up pretty much after we had talked that this was the right guy at the right time," Hurdle said.
Starter James McDonald made a lighthearted bet with Searage at Pirates Caravan in January: If each of the five starters won 10 games, Searage had to shave off his moustache and eyebrows.
"I kind of said it jokingly, and he said, 'All right,' " McDonald said. "So we made it a bet."
Now it appears Searage's trademark thick 'stache is in danger of disappearing.
Kevin Correia is already there with 12 wins, and the other four starters are within striking distance.
Given the Pirates' recent pitching history, it seemed like a safe bet at the time. Not only did no Pirates starter win 10 games last season, five lost 10 or more. The 5.00 team ERA ranked last in the majors.
Now, all but one of the starters have more wins than losses, and their 3.70 team ERA ranks fifth in the National League.
Hurdle credits Searage for the staff's strides.
"He speaks greatness to them," Hurdle said. "He can also take them to the woodshed. They believe in him. They trust him. They know he cares about them. And as important as anything, they know he can make them better."
He will be called on to put those skills to work now that the staff has struggled.
The Pirates have a 4.56 team ERA since the All-Star break, which ranks 13th out of 16 National League teams. The bullpen has blown four save opportunities after blowing 11 in the first half of the season.
Opposing hitters have increased their collective batting average by more than 30 points since the All-Star break.
Fixing these recent flaws is primarily Searage's responsibility as Hurdle gave his pitching coach "carte blanche" over the staff when Searage was hired.
"He goes 'These are your guys,' " Searage said. " 'You're going to take care of them. You're going to get them, and you're going to be accountable for them.' "
He approached his challenge by developing deep relationships with every pitcher.
"He'll take you and sit you down and talk to you as a human being, and not as a pitcher," Charlie Morton said. "Not as somebody that's trying to do a job out on the mound. Nothing more and nothing less than that. There is no hidden agenda. There is no false interest, false emotion. It's all genuine."
That knowledge lets him connect with his players in ways in which other coaches are incapable. When he makes a mound visit, his message to each pitcher is different -- finely tuned to what each pitcher needs to hear at a given moment.
"He knows how to talk to each individual in a way to help them succeed," McDonald said. "He knows what buttons to push for each guy. Some guys you have to talk to differently. He understands that. That helps him get through to us."
"He's got a different way of coaching," starter Jeff Karstens said, "and it fits our staff well."
That way is interactive, personal and consistent. He is a coach who is comfortable in his skin, and he preaches that approach to his staff. He doesn't need his pitchers to overextend themselves. He just needs them to be the best versions of themselves.
"We don't have a Roger Clemens," Searage said. "We don't have a [Justin] Verlander. We don't have [Tim] Lincecum. But we've got a Kevin Correia. We've got a [Paul] Maholm and a Karstens. And of course, Morton and McDonald.
"I'll take them anytime."
Ray Searage spent his first season as a major league coach in 2010 when he worked in the bullpen under then-Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. This season, Searage has made the staff his own:
Category: 2011 (with 46 games remaining) vs. 2010 (entire season)
Starters W-L: 42-39 vs. 34-84
Team W-L: 56-60 vs. 57-105
Home W-L: 26-32 vs. 40-41
Away W-L: 30-28 vs. 17-64
ERA (starters): 3.89 vs. 5.28
ERA (team): 3.72 vs. 5.00
Complete games: 5 vs. 1
Shutouts: 3 vs. 1
Saves: 32 vs. 31
First Published August 12, 2011 12:00 am