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BRADENTON, Fla. — In the Pirates’ glorious 1960s and ’70s, Bob Prince bubbled “You can kiss it goodbye!” when one of them connected for a home run.
Flashing forward to 2013, you may be able to blow a goodbye kiss to the home run itself. Oh, the Bucs are still going to hit them — they still have guys who can hit loads of them — but they are not going to live or die by them.
The 2012 Giants — last in the Majors in homers — proved execution trumps the long ball in the formula for ultimate success. Even at the gate: Everyone, chicks included, may dig the long ball; but they dig winning even more.
It thus is noteworthy that through 17 Grapefruit League games, the Pirates have scored a total of 15 runs on 12 homers — and an equal number of runs on outs. This new bent for creating runs came into focus during Monday’s walk-off win over the Orioles, when the winning run scored on a grounder to the right side of the infield.
The offensive balance is an early indication of the influence of new hitting coach Jay Bell, the only man in baseball history with seasons of 30-plus homers (1999) and 30-plus sacrifice bunts (1990-91). Bell has earned early plaudits from his new pupils with instruction focused on situations, not mechanics. Manager Clint Hurdle looks forward to the season-long impacts of Bell and assistant hitting coach Jeff Branson.
“There’s a lot of good work being done by them,” Hurdle said. “I feel good about that mix — the experience of Branson [formerly the Minor League hitting instructor] with most of the guys here, and Jay’s overall experience. They’ve bolstered that department for us, and will make a big difference as we go forward into the season.”
One of the few teams yet to whittle down population in the Major League camp, the Pirates are expected to get into that act on Wednesday, when they check back into McKechnie Field following Tuesday’s break in their schedule. Wednesday is a logical cutdown day also because it signals the start of exhibition play between Minor League teams.
Still, do not anticipate wholesale trims from the 62 players in big league camp.
For one thing, the actual playing force is considerably smaller than that. Pitchers Jason Grilli (Italy) and Wandy Rodriguez (Dominican Republic) are still at the World Baseball Classic, four other pitchers (Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano, Jose Contreras) and a catcher (Ali Solis) are getting treatment, and infielders Chase d’Arnaud (strained thumb) and Anderson Hernandez (shoulder) are on the blink.
For another, the competition in several areas remains too tight to make any early calls. The best battles are in the bullpen and on the bench.
The skirmish for three vacant bullpen seats was highlighted during the three-game winning streak the Pirates will take into Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays at 1:05 p.m. ET (listen on Gameday Audio). In those three games, 13 relievers combined to allow two earned runs in 17 2/3 innings, while compiling 22 strikeouts.
“The competition can be contagious as well. When the bar has been heightened, a different type of adrenaline can show up,” manager Clint Hurdle noted. “I’m liking what I’m seeing develop, and we still have over two weeks to go. But I like the place we’re at right now, in regards to the competition in different spots.”
It could be the Pirates’ next marketing slogan:
“Come See Our Guys Pick Off — and Tick Off — Their Guys.”
Putting on display what they have spent so much time preaching and practicing, Buccos pitchers have been pickoff-crazy through the first half of the exhibition season. The unofficial count is eight — three more than in all of the 2012 season.
Such execution has been the spring’s biggest reward for manager Clint Hurdle — who opened camp sworn to address the struggles of last season, when opponents were successful on 154 of 173 stolen-base attempts.
“It’s shown them they’re reaping the benefits of the hard work they’ve put into it,” Hurdle said. “You’re always happy when your early work transfers into game execution. They’re starting to talk about it among themselves, and that can have even more impact.”
Pitchers from Gerrit Cole to Jeff Locke have had a hand in it, but the leader with two pickoffs is none other than A.J. Burnett, which is significant for two reasons: One, Burnett virtually took the mound last season with a “Go Ahead, Steal” sign on his back; two, seeing the ace buy into this new approach so totally has to influence the whole staff.
“I know they’re gonna run on Burnett,” said the man himself, “so any little thing I can do to get better, it’ll help this team get better. So I’m all in. We’ve been very monotonous about it, working on it daily, but I’ve shown twice so far that it does help.”
“It’s good to have that synergy in Pittsburgh. I’ve been to Steelers practices, and to skatearounds with the Penguins. I have often invited Mike to come down here, and am happy he made it. Couldn’t get in Bylsma right now; he’s kinda busy.” — Hurdle on Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who visited camp on Monday, and Penguins counterpart Dan Bylsma
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.