Bell helps propel Bucs into position for run at a division crown


Rookie first baseman Josh Bell slides safely into home plate on Sunday afternoon. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

By surging into the All-Star break as one of the hottest teams in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates positioned themselves to make a run at an elusive National League Central Division title during the second half of the season.

After a nightmarish slump saw the Pirates lose 13 of 15 games and fall a season-low five games under .500, some fans were already giving up hope on the 2016 season and calling for the team to be “sellers” at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

But the club has shown that in the 162-game MLB regular season, June is way too early to draw conclusions about a team’s chances — especially when discussing a team as talented and experienced as this one.

Going into July, the Pirates won 12 of their next 16 games — including nine of their last 11 — to enter the break at 46-43. At one point during the stretch, they came from behind to win six games in a row — all on the road.

With star pitcher Gerrit Cole and trusted backstop Francisco Cervelli stuck on the 15-day disabled list, the Pirates turned to their farm system to infuse the team with youth and excitement.

Right-hander Chad Kuhl defeated Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers in front of a national TV audience during his major league debut, and top pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow was solid in his first career start in St. Louis.

But the Pirates’ most emphatic introduction was delivered in the final series before the break by 6-foot-2, 245-pound first baseman Josh Bell.

On Friday night, the Pirates trailed the division-leading Chicago Cubs in the seventh inning, 4-3. With reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta on the hill, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle tabbed the freshly called-up Bell to pinch-hit in his first major league at-bat.

Bell delivered, smoothly lacing a line drive single to right-center on the first pitch. He later came around to score the go-ahead run in a thrilling 8-4 victory.

“I’m on top of a cloud,” Bell told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the game. “I can’t draw it up a better way. Especially against that team, and that pitcher. We had our backs against the wall, and it was awesome to be a part of that one.”

But Bell wasn’t satisfied with just hitting singles.

The next night, Bell came off the bench to pinch-hit in the fifth inning. This time, the Pirates had a 7-5 lead, and the bases were loaded. One big swing could put the game away for good.

The 23-year-old slugger provided just that, launching a 1-1 changeup over the bleachers in right field and out of PNC Park for a grand slam.

Bell knew the ball was gone as soon as he hit it, hopping out of the batter’s box and fist pumping in celebration. His first big league home run gave the Pirates an 11-5 lead in an eventual 12-6 victory.

“I got goose bumps,” Hurdle told the Post-Gazette about watching Bell’s moonshot. “I’ve got them probably a dozen times since I’ve been a coach or manager. I got goose bumps tonight.”

In the final game before the All-Star break Sunday, Bell made his third pinch-hit appearance of the series and reached base safely again, this time showing outstanding plate discipline and drawing a nine-pitch walk.

He’s not known for his speed, but Bell came up big on the base paths for the Pirates.

First, Bell beat out a throw to third base to prevent a double play. He then raced home to score the tying run on Andrew McCutchen’s sacrifice fly to right field, just barely sliding past the catcher’s tag after a laser throw from Jason Heyward.

The Cubs pushed home one more run to take the series finale, 6-5, but Bell certainly made his presence felt with the club.

All signs point to the team sending Bell back down to Triple A after the All-Star break, where he can receive consistent at-bats until the Pirates have room to give him a permanent spot on the roster.

That time may not come until September — when the 25-man big league rosters expand to 40 — but after his legendary debut weekend, the Pirates might have no choice but to make room for the dreadlocked kid with a big bat.

The Pirates did the right thing by giving their top prospects a taste of the big leagues. But if they wait until September to bring them back up, it might already be too late.