Kevin Gorman: Ray Searage wears bull’s-eye as Pirates deal with pitching problems
Ray Searage hears the criticism. How could he not? The strength of the Pittsburgh Pirates was supposed to be the pitching staff, with a strong starting rotation and a loaded bullpen.
Instead, the Pirates have dealt with disaster, as pitching became their biggest problem. A dozen pitchers have spent time on the injured list, including four starters. Ace Jameson Taillon and setup man Keone Kela are amid 60-day stints on the IL.
As their long relievers became starters and minor leaguers became openers, the Pirates plunged from first place in the NL Central on April 22 to being tied for last place on Tuesday as they returned home to play the Detroit Tigers at PNC Park.
That makes the pitching coach an obvious target.
“I listen to it,” Searage said, “but I don’t take it into account because I know whatever I’m doing, some of these people are not privy to the inside part of the game that I am and what we’re trying to accomplish. They’ll see things that happen and say they’re doing this or that. How do you know I’m doing that? Unless you’ve spoken to me or walked a mile in my shoes, you don’t know what I’m doing.”
So, I spoke to Searage and asked what he’s doing.
Mostly, I asked how he’s doing.
The Pirates have used a dozen different starting pitchers this season. The starting rotation lost Taillon, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer and Jordan Lyles to injuries — Williams will return Wednesday and Lyles is close after throwing a simulated game — and gave way to a pick-your-poison mix of long relievers Steven Brault and Nick Kingham to openers Montana DuRapau and Michael Feliz to rookies Dario Agrazal and Mitch Keller.
“We just got pie-eyed with these things coming up at the same time,” Searage said of the rash of injuries. “Believe me, this is not what we wrote up in spring training — far from it.
“When you lose three out of four (starters) and then four out of five, you start to scramble a little bit. Other guys are getting opportunities and finding out what the major leagues are all about.”
What they found out wasn’t good.
After giving up 32 runs in his last seven outings, Kingham was designated for assignment and traded to the Blue Jays. Feliz gave up a grand slam to David Freese and lasted one-third of an inning at the Dodgers. DuRapau gave up a three-run homer and lasted two-thirds of an inning at Colorado. Keller gave up a grand slam in his major-league debut, lasting four innings at the Reds.
It doesn’t help that this all coincided with catcher Francisco Cervelli’s concussion issues, leaving the Pirates with a pair of backup catchers to work with the young pitchers.
“It’s a challenge,” Searage said. “You try to help them grow up quicker than what they’re normally used to. You’ve just got to stay positive. You keep working with them, day in and day out.”
What made it more difficult was to watch Tyler Glasnow look like a Cy Young candidate through two months in Tampa Bay while Archer struggled for the Pirates. They were swapped, along with Austin Meadows and former first-rounder Shane Baz, in a trade-deadline deal last July.
Searage went from being known as a pitch-whisperer for his reclamation projects ranging from A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano to Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ to having Pirates fans question whether he’s lost his Midas touch.
Where Glasnow’s success has been a sore spot, Searage swears he’s happy to see his former pupil figure it out. But how Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have shined since leaving the Pirates has caused people to second-guess their pitching philosophy.
And Kingham’s demise from taking a perfect game into the seventh inning of his major-league debut to being DFA’d and traded 14 months later hasn’t helped that narrative.
“At least I can look myself in the mirror,” Searage said, “and know that I’ve done everything that I possibly could.”
Even if it doesn’t reflect well on Searage?
“The coach is only as good as his student,” Searage said. “The student has got to take and be accountable for some of the stuff that has gone on out there. We can talk to them. We can show them. But when push comes to shove, they’ve got to be mentally tough, and they’ve got to grow up between the white lines. I only can make five trips. I can’t be up there every hitter. Those things are frustrating but when I leave here, at least I can say I know I did everything in my power to try to help them out.”
As for Archer’s penchant for giving up home runs — including four in one inning and five overall at Atlanta — Searage sees it as a two-part problem. For one, Archer isn’t executing his pitches. After dealing with control issues, he’s now leaving his fastball over the middle of the plate. And, Searage says, Archer is putting too much pressure on himself.
Searage isn’t doing that. He’s trying to do what he asks of his pitchers, to have a long outing and a short memory.
Searage knows Pirates fans are always looking for someone to blame — and the Pirates might eventually do the same — but is maintaining a positive outlook about a starting rotation that is finally starting to get healthy.
“If they want to use me as a scapegoat, fine,” Searage said. “I know what I can do and what I have done, and I just keep working my (rear end) off.”
Searage knows that his is on the line.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .