PITTSBURGH -- Early last September, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle sat down with Josh Bell and benched him for three days. At the time, Hurdle’s message was clear: Commit to an approach at the plate and stick to it. The move played out perfectly, as Bell finished strong with a September showing that set the stage for his All-Star first half in 2019.
Bell is not nearly as lost now as he was then, but Hurdle decided that Pittsburgh’s first baseman needed a similar break. Mired in a lengthy slump, Bell was pulled out of the Pirates’ starting lineup on Tuesday night at PNC Park. He won’t start Wednesday’s series finale, either. With an off-day on Thursday, Bell will get three days to reset before returning to the lineup Friday night at Busch Stadium.
“I just felt it was time,” Hurdle said. “We’ve had a conversation. He’s worked on some things. Then there just comes a point in time where, you know what, let’s not work on some things.”
This strategy has helped several Pirates players in the past. Hurdle has notably used it with Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and, most recently, Bell. Bell will be available off the bench, if needed, but the idea is to unplug -- do some light work on Day 1, evaluate his progress on Day 2 and rest on Thursday’s off-day.
“I’m just going to work until I feel good in the cage and trust that,” Bell said. “There is such a thing as taking things a little too far and taking too many swings at this point of the year. Just trying to put in the right type of work and trust it.”
Bell is batting just .176 with a .529 OPS since the All-Star break, but he hasn’t been quite the same hitter since his record-breaking month of May. From Opening Day through May 31, Bell slashed .343/.405/.704 with 18 home runs in 56 games. Since then, he’s put together a .209/.318/.429 line with nine homers in 54 games. His last home run was July 5, more than a month ago.
“I feel like my mindset’s in a good place. Body feels really good right now. It’s just the results on the field aren’t there,” Bell said. “Skip’s decision [is] to give me a couple days off and see how I can bounce back. … Just try to get back to the place where I was in a couple months ago.”
In years past, a slump like this would have sent Bell into tinkering mode. He would’ve changed his stance, his bat, his approach -- anything to get better results. Now, he’s applying the lessons he learned last September and trusting that his performance will improve as a result.
“I’m trying to get back to that mentality where if they make a mistake, I’m going to drive it,” Bell said. “For the most part, I feel like I haven’t been there for the last few weeks, so hopefully this break can bring me back to a good place.”
Added Hurdle: “We want every one of our players not just to finish, but to finish strong. How do we best put him in a position to have success the last six, seven weeks of the season to finish, to get back on track offensively and do some of the things we were watching him do throughout the first half?”
It was somewhat surprising to see the Bucs send out Agrazal after general manager Neal Huntington’s recent comment that there wasn’t room in the rotation for top prospect Mitch Keller. Perhaps this move will open a spot for Keller in Pittsburgh’s rotation. Keller is on turn to start Thursday for Indianapolis, while Agrazal was due to start Sunday for the Bucs.
• Catcher Francisco Cervelli, out since May 26 due to a concussion, caught suspended reliever Keone Kela’s simulated game on Tuesday afternoon at PNC Park. It was a major step in the right direction for Cervelli, who has said he wants to continue catching, though he still hasn’t been cleared to play in games.
• Reliever Michael Feliz put together arguably his best appearance in the Majors on Monday night, striking out five over two scoreless innings in the Pirates’ loss to the Brewers. In his second inning, Feliz was one ball away from an immaculate inning.
“Last night, that jumps at you. It may be the best volume of pitches he’s thrown all year,” Hurdle said. “However, he’s been pitching better for three or four weeks now. … We’ve seen development and traction.”
Indeed, Feliz has put together a 2.16 ERA with 29 strikeouts and only six walks in 25 innings since he was recalled from Triple-A on June 8. Feliz said his success is mostly a matter of trusting his stuff and “pitching how I used to pitch.”