Pitchers' bunt tournament builds unity for Pirates
BRADENTON, Fla. — Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister kept a keen watch after hearing that an illegal bat was being used.
Finally he spotted it. There clearly was too much pine tar, a dark brown stain going up the barrel. Stone-faced, Banister halted play, walked to the plate and grabbed the bat from Jeff Karstens.
Banister held out his arm ... and the bat stayed stuck to his palm. Karstens, playing it straight, looked away in mock shame.
"A serious infraction," Banister said, trying to keep a straight face. "We'll throw the bat out and warn him that next time there will be a suspension."
Every team, even the bash-happy American Leaguers, do bunt drills in spring training. But the Pirates found a way Thursday to turn what otherwise would have been a ho-hum workout into a unity-building exercise.
"That's the purpose," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Everybody got better. That's the best thing about it. All our starters and relievers got better with the bat."
The Pirates last year had 58 sacrifice bunts, seven more than the major league average. But there also were times when pitchers failed to get the ball down, stranding runners and costing the team at least a few runs.
"It was a soft spot for us last year," Hurdle said. "It was identified to me early in the (job) interview process, and (I was asked) how are we going to combat it."
Hurdle started by hiring former Colorado Rockies bullpen catcher Mark Strittmatter as the pitchers' hitting coach.
"He'll be hands-on with the five starters throughout the season," Hurdle said. "It's one thing to work on it in spring training. Our challenge is to continue to work on it throughout the year. I won't just close the book on it once we start games."
Pitchers have been working on bunts since camp opened 11 days ago. Hurdle turned it into a competition, with score kept to determine six finalists.
The final round was held as the final workout of the day. All of the players, coaches and staff — even owner Bob Nutting — gathered to watch and cheer.
Kevin Correia was the only starting pitcher to advance. Other finalists included Joe Beimel, Sean Gallagher, Fernando Nieve and Chris Resop.
Each pitcher tried to bunt into the infield grass between home plate and the pitcher's mound, the area where it would give a baserunner the best chance to advance without drawing a throw. Points were awarded for successful bunts.
Slow rollers that hugged the foul lines drew the biggest whoops and hollers. Putting a ball in one of three circles in front of the plate netted bonus points.
After switching to a legal bat, Karstens was among the leaders in round one. But he faded in the second round.
Beimel was the lone lefty. Although his teammates tabbed him the favorite going into the finals, Beimel was unsure how he'd fare.
"I haven't picked up a bat in spring training since 2008," Beimel said. "But I had some good bunt coaches in the past. I had Tommy Sandt when I played here with the Pirates (from 2001-03) and Maury Wills when I was with the Dodgers (from 2006-08)."
The coaching paid off. Using a bat on loan from closer Joel Hanrahan, Beimel edged Correia to win the final round.
"I just tried to catch the ball in the right spot," said Beimel, who celebrated with a airborne chest bump with Hanrahan at home plate.
Pirates Bunting Final
The camp bunting championship brings Pirates players and coaches together on the final day at Pirate City during spring training in Bradenton, Florida.
Here are the career bunting statistics for the Pirates who competed in the final round of the pitchers' bunt tournament Thursday:
Sean Gallagher: 6 seasons, 3 sacrifice bunts
Fernando Nieve: 4 seasons, 5 sacrifice bunts
Chris Resop: 5 seasons, 0 sacrifice bunts
Jeff Karstens: 5 seasons, 7 sacrifice bunts
Kevin Correia: 8 seasons, 25 sacrifice bunts
Joe Beimel: 10 seasons, 6 sacrifice bunts