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For Pirates pitchers, it's off to see the Wizard

| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 7:45 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage watches pitchers during the team's minicamp Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage works with pitcher Jeff Locke in the bullpen during the team's minicamp Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage watches pitchers during the team's minicamp Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Given his wondrous — magical, perhaps? — ability to resurrect fading careers, maybe it's time to start calling Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage the Wizard.

“That's the perfect nickname,” reliever Jared Hughes said.

“Yep, it fits,” left-hander Jeff Locke agreed.

Searage just rolled his eyes.

“No, no, no,” he said.

Searage's record since he joined the Pirates in 2011 suggests he's being too humble. He can turn a journeyman into a standout hurler, creating piles of wins and riches along the way.

Edinson Volquez spent a year under Searage's tutelage, then went on to win a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals. A.J. Burnett flourished for two seasons in Pittsburgh, spent a year floundering in Philadelphia, then rejoined Searage last season and became an All-Star at 38 years old. J.A. Happ had a fantastic two-month run with the Pirates, then cashed in with a $36 million free agent contract this offseason.

“His reputation is pretty remarkable, from what I've heard from a lot of different guys,” said left-hander Jon Niese, who was acquired from the New York Mets in December. “It seems like he knows his stuff. He takes his craft pretty seriously, and I'm really looking forward to working with him.”

Niese could be Searage's next project.

In 2012, Niese collected 13 wins with a 3.40 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 3.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Over the past three seasons, though, he was not even a .500 pitcher, and his peripheral numbers went in the wrong direction. Near the end of last season, the Mets moved him into the bullpen.

Searage and Niese met for the first time last Tuesday, when Niese made a one-day stop at minicamp. After their brief sit-down, Searage offered an interesting initial assessment.

“Niese is a guy who's had some time in the major leagues,” Searage said, “so the tweaks we do with him are going to be minor, if any.”

It's a misconception to think the fairy dust Searage sprinkles involves mechanical or physical changes. Much of his success simply is because of how he relates to pitchers.

“You take each one and work with them individually,” Searage said.

“You start to find out what they're all about, what their personalities are, what their likes and dislikes are. Basically, it's building a relationship with those guys.”

In Locke's case, a more hands-on approach is necessary. During minicamp, Searage began the process of correcting Locke's delivery — simplifying it, not reinventing it.

Searage describes his method as “connecting the dots,” which means building a pitcher's self-confidence before smoothing his mechanics. His streak of success gives Searage a built-in advantage when starting a new project: the pitcher comes in already believing Searage will get it done.

“Ray's not trying to make you somebody he would've wanted to be with your stuff,” Locke said. “He's not trying to change anything you do. He doesn't say, ‘Your cutter is great, but you should use it like this.' He's confident in all your abilities. He's trying to make you the best you can be with what you have.”

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

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