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Improved Pirates pitcher Brault 'right on course'

| Tuesday, March 7, 2017, 5:12 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Steven Brault's epiphany happened one afternoon last September at the end of a bullpen session.

Navigating his rookie season with the Pirates, Brault was trying to unlock the reason he couldn't match the success he had in the minors. He figured putting a little more muscle on his fastball would tame big league batters.

Brault is 6-feet tall and 190 pounds. His fastball sits about 91 mph. Those can be the makings of a very good starting pitcher, but they are not the qualities of a hulking flamethrower.

Gerrit Cole sat in the bullpen, studying Brault as he labored. As the left-hander stepped off the mound, Cole pulled him aside.

“He told me I should stop trying to be something I'm not,” Brault said. “I'm not a strikeout pitcher. He told me to work in the zone and be myself.”

Those were the same words Brault had been hearing for weeks from pitching coach Ray Searage. They didn't stick, though, until Brault got them from Cole.

“Sometimes, it has more effect when a peer kicks you in the butt,” Searage said with a smile.

Brault still hasn't gotten his first victory — he went 0-3 with a 4.86 ERA — but he did find things to build upon in spring training as he vies for the No. 5 job in the rotation.

Eight appearances in the majors gave Brault experience. Cole bolstered his confidence. Searage helped Brault rediscover a pitch that might be a difference-maker.

In October 2015, a gaggle of scouts watched Brault pitch during an Arizona Fall League game.

“Reminds me of Jeff Locke, but with better control,” one evaluator said. “He has a chance to be a lot better than Locke.”

Like Brault, Locke is a slender lefty who uses deception to keep hitters off-balance. Locke flopped with the Pirates, though, because he nibbled too much at the fringes of the strike zone.

Brault knows he has to attack in the zone. On Thursday against the Detroit Tigers, he breezed through two innings with just 26 pitches —including 19 strikes.

That's an excellent strike rate, but Brault is aiming even higher.

“If I could throw 26 (strikes) out of 26 (pitches), that's what I want to be doing,” he said. “I want to be able with every pitch I throw say, ‘There's no way this guy is going to hit this.'

“I need that confidence, that kind of cockiness to be good. I had that in the minor leagues, but I kind of lost it last year when I came up (to the majors). It's coming back now, and I feel good.”

Before he was traded to the Pirates in February 2015, Brault surged through the lower levels of the Baltimore Orioles system. One of his weapons was a developing curveball.

Last year, the Pirates told Brault to stop throwing his curve and instead focus on refining his slurve into a true slider. In September, Searage saw Brault toss a couple of curveballs during his flat-ground work.

“Over the winter, I want you to throw that curveball,” Searage told Brault.

When Brault reported to Pirate City in mid-February, both of his offseason tasks had been accomplished: his slider was solid, and his curve had hump.

As a bonus, Brault's fastball has a bit more giddy-up. Against the Tigers, it touched 94 mph.

“He's relaxed, so he's letting it go,” Searage said. “When you muscle up and think you have to throw everything (hard), that's not going to work.”

There is room for Brault's curveball to grow. He's throwing it with a three-quarters arm slot — not quite the 12-to-6 drop that marks an elite curve — but can adjust as he masters the pitch.

Brault's revamped arsenal should keep him in the hunt for the final rotation spot. Tyler Glasnow, Trevor Williams and Drew Hutchison, all right-handers, are Brault's competition.

“He's got all four pitches going — the changeup, the curveball, the slider and the fastball to both sides of the plate,” Searage said. “He's progressing nicely. He's right on course.”

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Steven Brault delivers against the Braves Tuesday, March 7, 2017, at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Steven Brault delivers against the Braves Tuesday, March 7, 2017, at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Steven Brault delivers against the Braves Tuesday, March 7, 2017, at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
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