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Josh Bell winning Clint Hurdle's confidence with improved defense

| Monday, June 26, 2017, 6:24 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Josh Bell talks with manager Clint Hurdle while taking infield drills during batting practice on April 26, 2017, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Josh Bell gloves a line drive during a game against the Cubs on June 18, 2017, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Josh Bell plays in the rain during a game against the Phillies on May 21, 2017, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Josh Bell tags out the Marlins' Vance Worley during a game on June 9, 2017, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Josh Bell dives for a ball during a game against the Mets on May 27, 2017, at PNC Park.

ST. LOUIS — The days of first baseman Josh Bell automatically being lifted for a late-game defensive replacement are over.

“We've taken those training wheels off and pushed him out there,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

A converted outfielder, Bell struggled with some of the finer points of playing his new position. The footwork, reaction time, throwing style and instincts are much different in the infield.

In order to become a true full-time player, Bell had to win the trust of Hurdle and infield coach Joey Cora.

“It's not about me feeling comfortable. It's about him feeling comfortable,” Cora said. “He works his (butt) off every day. There's still a long way to go, obviously, but he's worked really had to get to where he's at. And he's not satisfied. That's what I like about him.”

On June 7, Bell started at first base and was subbed after the seventh inning against the Baltimore Orioles. Since then, he has gone the distance in 18 of 19 starts.

In that span, Bell has had 141 chances, which break down as 129 putouts, 10 assists, and two errors.

“We've gotten to the point where he's shown the ability to pick up ground balls, lay out for balls and do those things,” Hurdle said. “Are there going to be some challenges? Heck, yeah. We'll run into them now and then. But I believe that this has freed him up a little bit.”

Although he didn't realize it at the time, Bell might have reached a tipping point June 10, when he played all nine innings and made 10 putouts in a 7-6 victory against the Miami Marlins.

“I said, ‘Did you realize you played all nine innings in a close game?' He said yes and (mentioned) another game when we were ahead by like five runs,” Hurdle said. “I said, ‘No, I'm talking about the kind game that we always take you out of.' ”

That's when Bell realized the significance of the moment.

“Clint laid the foundation, helping me realize I can finish games,” Bell said. “It's cool, being able to finish games, especially close ones. I feel like having that sense of faith in me, that sense of confidence from the coaching staff, is good. I'm going to continue to work and get better.”

Hurdle said there was no single thing Bell did to finally earn the full-time gig.

“It's the culmination of work, of experience, of working with Joey,” Hurdle said. “Joey's input is critical.”

Cora, who played infield for 11 seasons the majors, was hired at the end of October to be the third-base coach and infield coach. He was impressed when Bell traveled to Miami in the offseason to work with him.

“It's nice to see a young guy with all the accolades he had come in and work hard,” Cora said.

Several days each week, Bell takes grounders on the field during early work as Cora looks on.

“He knows I'm not afraid to sweat,” Bell said. “He gets me out there and makes sure I get good work in. He's still pretty new to me, but I'm keeping my ears open and trying to suck it all in.”

Hurdle said Bell remains “probably” a notch lower defensively than John Jaso but has made strides. There's also another factor to consider.

“I do think there comes a point where a player would like to play a full game,” Hurdle said. “I think it helps his mindset moving forward.”

Bell still has moments of indecision and flat-out poor decisions. In the third inning Friday, he went far to his right to field a bouncer that was headed toward second baseman Josh Harrison.

Bell snagged the ball, then realized he shouldn't have strayed off the bag. Pitcher Jameson Taillon, who normally wouldn't budge toward first base on a ground ball up the middle, got to the bag too late, and Tommy Pham reached on an infield single.

There are moments of brilliance, too.

On Sunday, Bell made a fantastic play that saved two runs. He laid out to snag Matt Carpenter's hard bouncer down the line, then dove and slapped the bag with his glove an instant before Carpenter got there.

“Josh is a big dude, and he's got a lot of moving parts,” Cora said. “For them to be connected, he needs to work hard and get experience. He needs to play and get used to the speed of the game up here. Hopefully, one day, we won't need to talk about his defense. We'll take it for granted.”

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

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