Kovacevic: Searage glue behind golden arms
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
If you haven't pitched, they say, you don't know pitching.
I don't know pitching.
Never have and never will, no matter how many games are watched, no matter how many questions asked, no matter how many incisive answers offered.
But I do know this: Ray Searage is my choice as the Pirates' first-half MVP.
It's not just that this incessantly incredible 50-30 start has been built on Searage's pitching staff that ranks No. 2 in Major League Baseball with a 3.18 ERA, No. 1 (by a mile) with 12 shutouts, No. 1 (by another mile) with a .226 opponents' batting average, No. 10 with 629 strikeouts, No. 4 with 270 walks allowed.
It's not just that Searage has overcome having 10 pitchers spend 400 days — exactly, no kidding — on the disabled list.
It's not just how Searage has stabilized veterans who struggled before coming here, notably top-dollar guys A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano.
All of that's what a really good pitching coach does.
Want to know what a great pitching coach does?
Ask Jeanmar Gomez.
He arrived over the winter in the most minor of minor trades with the Indians. Should have been a ghost in spring training, a complete afterthought.
But one day in Bradenton, I asked Searage to list all his starting candidates. He named a few, paused, then caught himself and added Gomez.
Was he serious?
Searage: “You'll see.”
Nobody saw much in March. Gomez was mostly a mess. But something changed near the end of Grapefruit ball.
“Ray told me to stop moving my head so much,” Gomez recalled. “It made me do too many things with my body, like I was doing in Cleveland.”
That was it?
“That was it.”
Gomez still doesn't last much beyond 70 pitches, but no one cares. He has a 2.76 ERA in his eight starts and has been essential in helping the rotation navigate all those injuries.
Ask Jason Grilli.
He'd be my unquestioned MVP if limiting the scope to players.
“I knew Ray way back when I was with the Marlins,” Grilli said of his first organization. “My career's come full circle to have a good guy ... who's the same guy I knew back then. It's a pleasure to work with him.”
Grilli, of course, is suddenly the game's best closer under Searage after 15 years adrift.
Ask Mark Melancon.
He pitched so poorly for Boston in early 2012 that the Red Sox sent this former big league closer down to Pawtucket to get right. He then came to the Pirates with the extra weight of being the main piece in the Joel Hanrahan trade.
“More than anything, I needed someone to have confidence in me, who could understand what I was about and what I could do,” Melancon said. “That's what I got from Ray. He understood my delivery from the first day. He brought out the best in me.”
Melancon has been equally fantastic.
Ask Tony Watson.
He laughed when the topic was raised.
“That's because Ray will have that effect on you,” Watson said. “He's always making sure you're having fun. Even when things aren't going well.”
One lousy outing early this season brought Searage to the mound for one of those odd-looking conferences where everyone covers their mouths.
“Ray looks me dead in the eye and says, ‘I don't have anything to say to you. I'm just waiting for other guy out there to get warm,' ” Watson remembered. “Couldn't help it, I busted out. Good thing I had that glove up.”
Watson has been so good Clint Hurdle now sees him as closer material.
Ask Jared Hughes.
“You know, I could tell you about things he's done for my delivery or ways he's helped form me as a pitcher and a person,” Hughes said. “But the best thing I can say is that I remember what it was like in the low minors, the way everyone would talk about him: ‘Oh, just wait till you get to Searage. Man, that guy will take care of everything.' And then when I did get to Ray, he was even better than advertised.”
Ask Charlie Morton, whose entire career — and personal confidence, for that matter — has been painstakingly shaped by Searage.
“He's a good man,” Morton said. “He cares.”
All this would make the man blush in shades even the occasionally purple-faced Hurdle couldn't match.
“I am humbled by these guys. I am honored. I'm the luckiest man in baseball to come to work every day with these guys,” Searage was saying before the game Saturday against the Brewers. “But they deserve the credit. Not me. They're the ones on the bump. I'm just standing behind them.”
Uh-uh. Sorry, Ray.
Yes, Neal Huntington and his pro scouts deserve credit. Russell Martin does, too, for superlative game-calling and receiving. But when every guy on the staff shy of, what, Jonathan Sanchez and Mike Zagurski, gets the job done, the bulk of that credit goes to the common denominator.
Got my own Searage tale.
Late on the eve of the 2010 season finale in Miami, near the end of that 105-loss disaster, I'd reported that the Pirates were about to fire John Russell as manager. Searage had come up from the minors at midseason and showed immediate results, but his job couldn't have looked any more certain than anyone else's. Players, as they're wont to do, sought more information. A couple called. Others texted.
All had basically the same message: What about Ray? ... No way Ray will go. ... They can't get rid of Ray.
They didn't of course, and you don't have to know much about pitching to see why.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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