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Pirates catchers get more vocal

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 6:39 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates catcher Michael McKenry talks with pitcher Chris Leroux after he pitched live batting practice at Pirate City Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013 in Bradenton, Fla. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates catcher Michael McKenry swings past a pitch to catcher Tony Sanchez during batting practice at Pirate City on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, in Bradenton, Fla. 'Nice pitch,' Sanchez yelled to pitcher Bryan Morris after McKenry's swing connected with Sanchez's mask. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates catcher Russell Martin passes by pitcher A.J. Burnett while making their rounds in the players' cafeteria during photo day Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, in Bradenton, Fla. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

BRADENTON, Fla. — Jeff Locke's pitch sailed up in the zone, and Pirates catcher Michael McKenry instantly knew what was wrong.

“Slow down!” McKenry yelled.

It was Locke's debut bullpen session of spring training, the first time in months that the left-hander and McKenry had settled in 60 feet, 6 inches apart and went to work. Yet, McKenry quickly slipped into sync with the young pitcher, as if they'd worked out together all winter.

Practically every pitch was punctuated by a comment from McKenry. Sometimes, it was just an encouraging “Attaboy!” After some pitches, McKenry paused and gave Locke detailed feedback.

“I was a little quick at the top today, and he told me to finish through the ball, stay on top of it,” Locke said. “McKenry's fantastic at that. A catcher's got to be a leader back there, and that's what he is.”

McKenry wasn't the only catcher yapping with his pitcher. Russell Martin is known for being vocal behind the plate. Even Tony Sanchez, who in previous years stayed silent during bullpen sessions, has started speaking up.

“It's something we've been pushing more,” catching instructor Manny Sanguillen said. “I told Sanchez, ‘If you want to be a superstar, you've got to communicate with the pitcher.' ”

Each of the Pirates' top three catchers has something to gain from working more closely — and more vocally — with the pitchers. As a newcomer in camp, Martin is learning the staff from scratch. McKenry finally has set down roots and wants to expand his role. Sanchez, a former first-rounder, is trying to earn his first call-up sometime this season.

“You have 12 (pitchers) you have to know inside and out,” Sanchez said. “You have to know how to approach each of them in different situations. It's easy in the bullpens early in spring training because everyone's in a great mood, everyone's feeling great.”

Still, it took a bit of cajoling by Sanguillen and other coaches to get Sanchez to open up during the side sessions. Sanchez hates to be distracted by comments during his batting practices, and he figured the pitchers felt the same about their workouts.

“I don't like someone else telling me what to do every time,” Sanchez said. “But I do like somebody to tell me when I've made a good swing, when they see something they like. So, this year, I've really made an effort at letting (pitchers) know what they've got to do, what I think their mechanics look like, what I see their pitches doing. They've responded well to it.”

After Locke sprayed a couple pitches high, McKenry stepped in front of the plate, lifted his mask and urged a slower pace.

“Locke is a guy who's high-strung. He's a little nervous,” McKenry said later. “You've got to take control and slow him down. You've got to get him to lock onto the mitt early and try to drive the ball through the catcher, not just to him.”

The next few pitches went like laser beams to the low, outside corner, which drew a loud whoop from McKenry and a grin from Locke. A few feet away, Martin was getting chatty while he caught breaking balls from closer Jason Grilli.

“It was the same thing with Martin — interacting with the pitcher, letting him know when it's a good pitch and he really locks in on that spot,” Locke said. “Just communicating back and forth. I think there's going to be a lot of that this year.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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