HOUSTON – Josh Bell, with one swing of the bat, made a final campaign push Wednesday night.
Bell smashed an opposite-field two-run home run into the second deck of the right-center field stands at Minute Maid Park in the first inning to open the scoring. That sparked the Pirates to their fifth win in the past six games and a 14-2 rout of the American League West-leading Astros.
The home run also gave voters something to think about in the All-Star Game online balloting, which began at noon Wednesday and ends at 4 p.m. Thursday, at MLB.com. Bell is one of three finalists in the starting National League first-baseman chase along with the Braves’ Freddie Freeman and the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo.
The home run was Bell’s 21st of the season and quite a shot. Batting from the right side, the switch-hitting Bell hit Framber Valdez’s fastball 423 feet with an exit velocity of 108 mph.
Bell also increased his RBI total to a major-league-leading 68 after going five consecutive games without driving in a run. His 52 extra-base hits also top the big leagues.
Clint Hurdle admittedly is not objective about the election. However, he has valid reasons for why Bell should start in the Midsummer Classic on July 9 at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
"If you're caught up in exit velocity, he's your guy," Hurdle said. "If you're caught up in distance of home runs, he's your guy. If you're caught up in driving in runs and a lot of the slug stuff that's going on, he's one of your guys. And the smile. It’s a million-dollar smile. He plays with emotion, but he doesn't play emotionally, and the fans gravitate to that as well."
Bell also has Corey Dickerson’s vote.
“He’s been really consistent all year and he’s carried this team to the point we are,” said Dickerson, who went 4 for 4 with three doubles and a walk. “People don’t realize how hard it is mentally, physically, the grind of not taking a day off, always being in the lineup and making so many adjustments to stay hot.
“It’s been really impressive to watch. He’s stayed humble throughout it all and he deserves it.”
The Pirates haven’t had a first baseman start in the All-Star Game since Dale Long in 1956. Bell would love to end the drought of more than six decades.
“Sure,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always thought would be a cool thing to do. I’d love the opportunity. I put in a lot of work in the offseason to try to get better and being picked to the All-Star Game would be a nice way to show it paid off.”
Bell also figures to be invited to participate in the Home Run Derby on July 8. Like most children of his generation, this 26-year-old has more memories of that event than the All-Star Game.
Bell particularly remembers watching on television in 2008 when Josh Hamilton put on a show in the opening rounds at Yankee Stadium before eventually losing to Justin Morneau in the final. Bell grew up in Irving, Texas, and was big fan of Hamilton, who then starred for the Rangers.
“Morneau won it, but for me, Josh won it,” Bell said with a smile.
Speaking of wins, rookie right-hander Dario Agrazal notched the first of his two-game career by pitching one-run ball over six innings. The lone run came on George Springer’s leadoff homer in the first inning.
Agrazal, 24, was making a second spot-start after being called up from Class AAA Indianapolis before the game. He kept his poise after Springer’s shot.
“I went into the game recognizing they are a strong offensive team, a strong team all the way around, but I committed to my plan and stuck with my plan,” Agrazal said through translator Mike Gonzalez. “It’s just trusting the process, trusting the plan, recognizing that it’s just another game and committing myself to just go pitch by pitch.”
Agrazal also talked about the thrill of getting his first major-league victory:
The Pirates gave Agrazal plenty of run support by scoring twice in each of the first three innings to move in front 6-1. The game turned into a laugher in the ninth inning when the Astros turned to first baseman Tyler White for mop-up relief and he gave up six runs.
It was such a good night for the Pirates’ offense that Dickerson led off the sixth inning by hitting a double off Chris Devenski on a pitch that bounced before it reached home plate. Dickerson said he has had at least three other such hits in his seven-year career.
“It looked like a good pitch to me,” Dickerson said with a grin, “so I swung at it.”
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