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STEVE DESHAZO: Ritchie’s ‘process’ making believers out of Pirates’ sluggers

The person least surprised by the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates’ recent hitting explosion may be the man most responsible for it.

There’s a lot to digest in that sentence, but Gregg Ritchie has been working toward this day since he was hired as Pittsburgh’s minor league hitting coordinator in 2006.

The 48-year-old North Stafford High School graduate is now the Pirates’ big-league batting coach, and he expected success—even though he knew it might take years for baseball’s most-futile franchise to enjoy it.

“It’s just a process. It’s something we’ve been working toward for many years, since I came to the organization as a coordinator,” Ritchie said Wednesday. “It’s nice to see that process coming through. The players are getting it; everybody’s getting it. It’s all based on beliefs and a culture of where we’re going.”

The Pirates (48–37) won 10 of their final 12 games before the All-Star break and have the National League’s second-best record, trailing only Washington (49–34). They’ve gotten hot despite ranking 22nd among 30 major league teams in batting (.246) and 21st in runs (345).

Those modest numbers were once even worse. In their 10–2 run, the Pirates scored 10 or more runs four times. A low-profile lineup even tied a club record for home runs in June (39) set by the 1975 squad that featured Hall of Famer Willie Stargell and Dave Parker.

“Hitting is contagious,” Ritchie said. “What isn’t contagious? If we’re in the same room and I sneeze, what are you going to do? Hitting is contagious because of the belief

in what you’re doing. It’s our job to promote that culture and that mentality. Everybody’s bought into it.”

No one more so than Andrew McCutcheon, a front-runner for NL MVP honors. The speedy center fielder leads the league in batting (.362) and ranks among the top five in hits (112), runs (58), RBIs (60) and homers (18).

Last month, Sports Illustrated documented Ritchie’s role in revamping McCutcheon’s undisciplined approach at the plate when he was slumping at Double-A Altoona in 2007.

Ritchie doesn’t downplay his role in McCutcheon’s metamorphosis, but prefers to credit his prize pupil’s “character.”

“He didn’t want to be just a contributor,” Ritchie said. “It was his willingness to say, ‘It’s in me; it’s in us.’ that helped make everyone better.

“His willingness to step back, without emotion, and honestly evaluate where he was, was the biggest thing.”

And once the franchise’s most talented player showed a hunger to improve, it trickled down to his teammates. They desperately wanted to end their team’s record 19-year run of losing seasons, but many didn’t know how.

With the full support of manager Clint Hurdle, Ritchie always had a plan. He’s a meticulous note-taker who unearthed his 2-year-old critiques of McCutcheon’s swing to help him in ’07.

And while each hitter has his own unique stance and talents, Ritchie has tried to promote a common approach at the plate.

He has worked with most of the Pirates’ everyday players since their days in the minors, so he’s familiar with not only their swings, but their personalities and how to make his point with each. He quotes Muhammad Ali, John Wooden and the recent fighter-pilot movie “Red Tails” for inspiration.

“Everybody has their own style. With our guys—or even with kids—I have to be a chameleon,” he said.

And he’s less concerned with statistics than most.

“What’s important is taking a good at-bat—the most competitive, quality at-bat for that situation or that pitch,” he said. “I ask, ‘Did you make things easier for the guy coming up behind you? Did you get behind 0–2 and fight off seven pitches? That’s a good at-bat.’

“‘With a guy on second and no outs, did you take the right approach and get him over to third so the guy behind you could drive him in?’ It steamrolls, and everybody’s at-bats become easier and more focused.”

It’s paying off. Besides McCutcheon’s stellar statistics, second baseman Neil Walker is hitting .487 over his last 10 games to raise his season average to .291. Third baseman Casey McGehee is at .355, and right fielder Garrett Jones is hitting .351 over that same span. Even slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez (16 homers) has hit .290 in his last 10 games, raising his mark to .231.

Some might think the All-Star break might cool down a hot team. But Ritchie is confident the Pirates’ approach won’t waver.

“There is an excitement about where we are—a city excitement, a team excitement. We’re not overly jubilant, because we didn’t finish anything yet. We’ve got our sights set on finishing it.

“It’s no different from the first month of the season, when we weren’t winning. There’s definitely more excitement and more confidence, though.”

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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