Spring training: Top brass talk about 'buzz'
Second baseman Freddy Sanchez (second from right) hangs his head during the national anthem Feb. 25 in Bradenton, Fla. The Pirates believe there is a buzz in the locker room and Sanchez says he's having the most fun he's ever had in spring training.
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- "Dude, there's a buzz here."
Those were the words of catcher Ryan Doumit a couple weeks ago, and they went largely unexplained.
"I don't know. There just is, I'm telling you. It's a positive buzz."
Earlier this week, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, fresh off a monster home run, was taking extra cuts in the cage. Asked about the shot, he chose instead to talk about the camp mood.
"To be totally honest, this is the most fun I've ever had in a spring training," Sanchez said. "I mean, there's always an attitude of being optimistic and wanting to win, but I've never felt it like this ... this atmosphere."
And what does that mean?
"It's the staff, the way we're learning things. I've learned things from Perry Hill here and the other guys ... it just makes it fun every day to get up and go to work. You wake up really ready to go."
The Pirates were off yesterday -- the first of three off-days in this extended spring -- but the two men at the top, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, were taking in minor league camp at Pirate City, and they, predictably had an easy time elaborating on the observations of Doumit and Sanchez.
"Guys have been getting at it," Coonelly said. "They've been focused, they have a job to do, and they believe in themselves. It's come from JR, and it's worked down to his staff and to the players."
That would be manager John Russell, who has been dwarfed as a topic of conversation this spring by Hill, the highly reputed new infield instructor, and Joe Kerrigan, the new pitching coach.
"There is a real satisfaction in having a great instructor, whether in the law or in baseball, be able to explain something to you, and then, to go out and execute it," Coonelly, a former lawyer, continued. "You might not get it right away but, once it clicks, there's something to that. Now, you're seeing the pitchers really focus on what Joe tells them because they're seeing it click. Whether we win or lose the game, they can see that we're not getting into a 2-0 count with every batter we face."
So, that is the buzz?
"That's the buzz. It's not about being 8-4. It's about seeing that we're doing the things that are being taught."
"We're building on the energy, passion that the staff brings," Huntington said. "There is attention to detail, focus and ... the non-acceptance of the idea that we're just getting our work in. We're getting quality work in."
To be sure, few things in sports are less relevant than Grapefruit League records, given all the early substitutions and other variables. Still, there has been no shortage of signs that the Pirates, as a whole, are improving in key areas.
Start with offense.
Numbers always have looked good at hitter-friendly McKechnie Field, even for the worst of the Pirates' recent teams, but there can be no mistaking, for example, the vastly improved swing of third baseman Andy LaRoche, whose .556 average, remarkably, might not fully tell the tale of how good he looks at the plate. Even his outs and foul balls are getting scorched.
Hitting coach Don Long noticed a lack of timing between upper and lower body even while LaRoche was dragging to that .152 average last season, but it was not until the offseason that the mechanics were fully reworked.
As Russell said the other day, "Looks like a totally different player."
The Pirates also have appeared more patient, drawing 56 walks in 12 games. Although many have come late against inexperienced pitchers, it still is a positive that the hitting prospects playing in those innings -- notably outfielder Andrew McCutchen, with a team-high seven walks -- are showing sound approaches.
Other regulars hitting well include Sanchez (.389), Nate McLouth (.389), but those lagging are Jack Wilson (.111), Nyjer Morgan (.200), Doumit (.200) and Adam LaRoche (.227)
Defensively, the Pirates have committed five errors to their opponents' 15, with only two committed by regulars.
Pitching is harder to gauge.
The starters have been spotty in efficiency and control, with Tom Gorzelanny's 7.50 ERA and five walks the sore thumb of the group. But the bullpen regulars have ranged from good to excellent, with Matt Capps, Tyler Yates, Craig Hansen and hopeful Evan Meek still at 0.00.
A good measure early each spring can be found in walks, and the Pirates have issued an unsightly 44. But that includes zero for starters Zach Duke and Ross Ohlendorf, one each for Paul Maholm and Jeff Karstens.
The glaring negative has been baserunning, with four caught stealings and four others thrown out trying to stretch a base.
"We're winning because we're doing things the right way," Huntington said. "Our pitchers are throwing strikes, and the ones who aren't are giving up the runs."
"Amazing how that happens."
Continuing, Huntington said, "We've attacked our pitch when it's been there and haven't gone out of the zone. Defensively, we've handled the baseball. We haven't done as well at baserunning. But there is an energy and enthusiasm. These guys like each other, they're pulling for each other, and ... they believe. They believe in each other, and they believe we're heading in the right direction."
First Published March 11, 2009 12:00 am