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Q&A: Ray Searage

September 29, 2013
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Editor's note: In a season filled with surprises, the Pirates pitching stands alone at the top of the list. From a solid core of starters to a bullpen that was the best in baseball throughout the year, solid, consistent pitching has been a hallmark of the team's resurgence. Ray Searage, the man responsible for the pitching staff's development, talks about his role and how the staff has come together as the Pirates head into the postseason.

- The starting pitching has remained consistent throughout the 2013 season. What's been different this year as opposed to the past couple years?

Searage: We've got starters out there with experience, that know when to go change their game plans, and are able to make adjustments during the course of the game. Our catchers play a big part in that. The communication between our starters and our catchers (has) been extremely good as to what's working and what's not working today, and we go from there.

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- The starters' overall performance has been very consistent, but the faces have changed through the season. As a pitching coach, what challenges do you face trying to hold things together when you've had a dozen guys start games this year?

Searage: You know, you take that game - that one game that one day - and whoever's starting it, you go over the game plan, you try to help them become the best pitcher that they can be by using their stuff, and go to their strengths, and you put the pieces together. You connect the dots out there, and you let them have it, and the catcher plays an integral role in that. It's really a good thing to do, that we're all pulling in the same direction.

- The bullpen has exceeded just about everyone's expectations this year. To what do you attribute that success?

Fact Box

- Ray Searage, 58

- Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach

- Born in Freeport, N.Y.; attended West Liberty State College

- Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 22nd round of the 1976 draft

- Spent parts of seven seasons as a relief pitcher for the White Sox, Brewers, Dodgers and Mets from 1981-90

- Served as Pirates pitching coach since August 2010

Searage: These guys have matured greatly during the course of the year. They know what they're all about, they know what their stuff is. They know what their jobs are, and it makes it a lot easier to prepare for the day when you know what time of the game that you'll be coming in, what the score might be, and then you know what hitters you're going to be facing. Preparation, and knowing a little bit about the unknown, helps you perform a little bit better.

- The whole "shark tank" theme has gotten a good bit of attention this year. Is that just something fun for the guys out there, or does it speak to a deeper solidarity that's translated to on-field performance?

Searage: I think it's both. In the beginning, they wanted to make an identity for themselves out there, and they wanted to get ... an animal that was a predator, and the shark, it just happened that (Mark) Melancon had some experience in a shark tank in Australia, in New Zealand. It took off, and now they know they have high standards that they perform to.

- A lot of guys have looked like the staff's ace at various points this year, but Francisco Liriano obviously seems to have been your most consistent stopper this year. What has his presence meant for this club?

Searage: Outstanding. He's a quiet leader. He goes out and leads by actions. He's not a rah-rah, boom-boom guy on the bench here. He's very smart, he's very well-grounded. He's got a good idea on what his abilities are, and he does his homework on the opposing team. He goes out there and he competes, and he'll try to figure out how to beat you, one way or the other.

- Any thoughts on what was keeping him from achieving that form the past couple years?

Searage: You know, to tell you the truth, I really couldn't put a finger on it, or to tell you this was the reason why. When he got here, it was like a new beginning for him - new coaches, and everything, and we looked at him in a brand new, fresh way, and we tried to help him in order to get his delivery sound, to find out what his strengths were. He's not your quintessential two-seam left-hander; you know, he can throw a slider, a changeup, at any time in the count, so you just can't sit on one pitch. If he's executing all those pitches, and pitching in, it's really hard to get a good feel for him because you don't know what he's going to throw. His personality is tremendous. He's a great leader for the younger kids, especially the Latinos, and he goes about his business, and he's a well-grounded human being.

- What has it been like to work with Gerrit Cole, and the tremendous amount of raw talent he possesses?

Searage: It's like holding onto a tornado, you know, trying to ride it. He is a young kid with, God bless him, some great talent. Now all we have to do is try to funnel that and get it going to where it's going to be more beneficial to him. Earlier on, the breaking pitches, the offspeed pitches, were not quite there yet. He worked tirelessly in the bullpen to make sure that they got consistent, and before you know it, we started seeing the benefits of that. Right now, he's still going to go through his growing pains in the Major Leagues, but you know, he's got a better idea that he can adjust, absorb, and make the adjustment for the next start.

- Let's stay with Cole. What specifically has been the key to the outstanding performances he's had the last several times out?

Searage: He's got a better feel for what he can do. You know, success breeds confidence, breeds success ... it's a never-ending wheel. And as he's going out there and pitching and finding out what he can do, and about the hitters, and knowing the hitters' weaknesses and knowing their strengths, knowing what his strengths are, and competing and battling out there. He's learning with every pitch. He knows and kind of has a good feel about himself, especially on the mound.

- How has Cole handled being saddled with the "future of the franchise" title, if you will?

Searage: You know, I don't really think he thinks about that very much. Every time that we've talked, he's got both feet on the ground, and he's focusing on his next start. How can I keep the team in the game, how can I help the team get a chance of winning this game that I'm starting, how far can I go and what do I have, and those things have really helped in speeding up (his) maturity level as a Major League pitcher.

- Cole's in uncharted territory as far as his workload this year. How do you balance health considerations with the fact you're right in the middle of a pennant race?

Searage: We're watching. We have an idea - there's a couple times where we've pushed him back from a start. ... We did it in August, and we did it in September. As of right now, we can't prepare for something that we don't have just yet. What we have to do is concentrate on every game, taking care of that one game, and then when the next day brings the next game, we focus on that.

- Was there ever any conversation about shutting him down at any point this year?

Searage: No, no. We just made sure that we found out where he was the last year, and where he is this year, and we kind of calculated it, that's why we had him pushed back a couple times.

- As a pitching coach, how does your approach differ working with a veteran such as A.J. Burnett versus a young guy like Cole or a Jeff Locke?

Searage: With A.J., it's more of Xs and Os, and it might be one or two keys that I just need to say something about them, because he's been pitching for some time, and he's got a good idea of what he needs. I'm there for support. With Cole, he's still progressing into a bona fide Major League pitcher. He still has some hoops to jump through, but when talking to a young kid and somebody who's had experience, you're thinking about the positives and where his delivery is. That way, with A.J., it's more like a "you're not doing this, you're not doing that," and that's it. It's cut and dried, whereas the younger kids, you have to go a little more in depth so this way they understand.

- Mark Melancon's been a huge addition this year. What has he meant to the team over the course of the season?

Searage: Tremendous. Tremendous acquisition by Neal (Huntington), and this guy, we were able to get him back, back into the swing of things, no pun intended. But you know, his confidence level and what he's done for us out of the bullpen has been tremendous - I mean, not only as the eighth-inning guy, and then he filled in for the stopper when Jason (Grilli) went down. You know, when you've got two guys down there like that, and you can count on Melancon coming in and shutting it down in the eighth inning, and sometimes last year, Grilli faced two-three-four when he was in the eighth inning role, and Melancon was doing that, too. Mark has been a real positive influence, especially for the young guys out of the bullpen, like (Bryan) Morris, and (Justin) Wilson, and (Vin) Mazzaro, those guys - watch how the routine is made, what he does in order to prepare himself for the game, not only physically but mentally. And they've grown that way, and Mark has been a big add to the chemistry of the bullpen. Not that I'm saying he's the only reason. They all get together and they all pull the same way and they've always got each others' back.

- Melancon spent some time in the same bullpen as Mariano Rivera. What kind of impact do you think that's had on his development as a relief pitcher?

Searage: I mean, there you've got the best of the best. You know, he's had conversations with him that he told me (about), and Mariano was always thinking about the execution of that one pitch, and then the execution of the next pitch when that came up, so you know, when (Rivera) went out there, (Mark) watched him, and (Rivera) practiced what he preached. There was no over-excitement, no panic, he was able to control his emotions. He's been doing it for how many years, you know? But to watch somebody do that, to watch the best of the best, you can try to emulate yourself about that.

- Looking back over the season, who or what has been the biggest surprise to you on this staff?

Searage: Wow. Well, Liriano out of the starters, coming over and pitching the way he has been pitching has been tremendous. Out of the bullpen, I couldn't give you one guy. They've all been surprises to me. I'm really happy, in a good way, that Morris has done so well, Wilson has done so well, Mazzaro - (Tony) Watson, we knew he was on his way, he just needed more seasoning and he got it this year, and he's been phenomenal. Grilli and Melancon, you know, so I can't give you one guy down there. ... I'm really happy to see how they've matured so well, and they've taken a really good hold of their jobs down there, so it's been really, really a lot of fun.

- You guys have had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball this year. Can you speak to the organizational depth the Pirates have, and how you think that will translate in the coming years to maintaining that status?

Searage: Well, in the past, we didn't have depth. We had young pitchers, but they weren't ready for the Major League level, or as we did this year, we spot started (Brandon) Cumpton, (Kris) Johnson. We had guys that could come up that could fill that void when we had a pitcher go down, to save about a week, to get them back to normal, to get them bounced back to their old ways of pitching again, because this is a long year. This is a grind, and when you have the Cumptons and the Johnsons coming up and spot starting, that saved our tail big time because we had depth. We had depth in the minor leagues also out of the relief corps, coming up. So now, all of a sudden, the transition's going, that all of these young kids are now getting closer to the Major League level, they're getting a little bit of dosage up here, and when we bring them up and we use them because we need somebody to take a break or something, they come in and they do a good job, they see how it is, now the next time that they come up, they're going to be more familiar with what's happening up here and how to handle it.

- Last question: what has it been like for you personally, being a part of bringing winning baseball back to Pittsburgh?

Searage: You know, I've said this many times before, I'm just a lucky man right now, to be in the position that I am. I've been with the Pirates for 12 years, and to watch it turn around and being a part of it - in it - it's priceless. I don't mean to coin a phrase, but you can't put a price tag on it. The kids - I call them kids, because I'm an old man - but these men that go out there and perform and compete, it's just tremendous, and it's really nice to see the personalities, how they all get together and they all pull in the same direction. So for me, I hit the lottery.

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