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Season’s end still meaningful to Pirates’ Bell

On Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Pirates completed their final home game of the season. In the past few years, there was palpable buzz around the ballpark as the seasons shifted from summer to fall. The Pirates were in it, PNC Park was full, and the games were important.

In 2016, September baseball has been much different. Pittsburgh was officially eliminated on Tuesday night, but, practically, illusions of contention faded several weeks prior. Instead of the sold out crowd that packed PNC Park during the team’s final home stand last year, the 2016 Pirates finished the home portion of their schedule on a rainy weekday in front of several thousand empty seats.

It has been a disappointing campaign for a team that has made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons. But, while the games are meaningless in the standings, the end of the season is still meaningful for some players.

Take Josh Bell, for instance. The switch-hitting first baseman made his major league debut during a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs that occurred right before the All-Star Break and a game against the Washington Nationals right after the break. In four pinch-hit plate appearances, Bell went 2-for-2 with two walks and a colossal grand slam that turned a game against the Cubs into a laugher.

The four-game stint was temporary. Bell was sent back down to Triple-A on July 17th, but was able to bring with him a story that he’ll always remember.

“Going back to Indianapolis, it was cool to reminisce about the experience with my teammates,” Bell said. “It’s something that I’ll never forget.”

Two months later, Bell is a fixture on the Pirates and will likely be expected to provide power to Pittsburgh’s lineup next season. Minor league baseball players tend to be put through the ringer. At this time last year, Bell was on his way down to the instructional league. This year, he gets to finish with the big club.

Bell said that at the beginning of this season, and for his short spell in the minors following his first call-up, he was trying to do too much. Every at-bat had to mean something and every hit had to impress.

“This past spring, I was trying to hit the furthest home runs in batting practice and, while getting limited at-bats, trying to do the most in every at-bat,” Bell said. “That makes baseball harder than it should be.”

Now, Bell can enter the offseason with a specific agenda. He can work on his rough defense at first base, which kept him in the minors maybe longer than expected this season, or any other aspect of his game that. He can focus on the smaller parts of his offensive approach and learn from the players in the clubhouse that have succeeded in the major leagues.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said that he and his coaching staff try to discourage the idea that selling out for more home runs will get a player to the major leagues quicker, but is encouraged that Bell’s major league experience this season has allowed him to acknowledge some of his faults.

“It’s good to know that he feels confident enough in his own skill that he doesn’t need to come in and impress,” Hurdle said. “He has to come in and play good baseball, take good at-bats, and work to be a dependable defender.”

For a Pirates team that featured 12 players who made their debuts in 2016, this kind of experience is valuable. There is a certain amount of culture shock that goes with debuting in the big leagues. One has to become acclimated to stringent travel schedules, pre-game routines, and that extra deck of baseball fans that every major league ballpark features.

But once that wears off, Bell said that the young talent that has come to occupy a large portion of the Pirates locker room is only focused on one thing: Winning.

“It’s there for whoever wants it,” Bell said. “Us young guys, we definitely want it. We want to taste that champagne.”

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