MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Reason aside, Bell looks like old self

Leach: Reason aside, Bell looks like old self

Reason aside, Bell looks like old self
NEW YORK -- Heath Bell is fixed, or maybe he isn't. He discovered what was wrong without any help, or he didn't. He's the Marlins' closer again, or he isn't.

You know things have gotten weird when Ozzie Guillen emerges as the voice of restraint and reason. But the Marlins manager served just that role on Wednesday afternoon when he discussed Bell's resurgence and the cause, or causes, behind it.

Bell said Wednesday that he sorted out a kink in his delivery over the All-Star break and that he expects to be his old self from here on out. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire acknowledged the mechanical issue was significant, but indicated it was one that he and Bell had tried to fix long before July. And Guillen said, in so many words, that he really didn't care the reason or the cause.

"Nobody can figure it out," Guillen said. "He's pitching well. The baseball gods will bite you bad [if you think], 'I figured it out.' Boom, two runs. Nobody's figured out baseball yet. He's pitched better."

The veteran right-hander, who signed a three-year, $27 million contract last winter to close for the Marlins, will apparently soon be reinstated to ninth-inning duties the next time Miami has a close lead in the ninth. Guillen and St. Claire believe that it's the best arrangement for the Fish, given that Bell is strictly a one-inning pitcher while current de facto closer Steve Cishek can be used for four or more outs at a time.

Bell walked a strange line on Wednesday afternoon, acknowledging that he wants badly to close again, while also professing his support for Cishek. When Bell spoke with reporters, he had not yet been informed of Guillen's intention to return him to the ninth.

"I'm trying to help this team win as much as possible," Bell said. "Do I want to close? Yes. I came here to close. I came here to do great things as a closer. Not as just an everyday guy. But with these guys out here, my teammates and my bullpen, I want them to do the best they can. Steve's doing great and [Mike] Dunn's doing great. I want those guys to keep doing great. I don't want to overshadow anybody."

Bell, as talkative and open a player as there is in the Majors, is convinced he's found out exactly what was behind his early-season struggles. He walked more men than he struck out over the season's first eight weeks, and he's been removed from the closer's role not once but twice in his first year as a Marlin.

He pointed to a change in his stride, one which he's reversed, while lamenting a slew of other "fixes" that didn't take. Bell believes that for the first half of the season, he was stepping too far forward on each pitch. That left him unable to get on top of his pitches, unable to finish fastballs and breaking balls alike, and subject to leaving his offerings up and out of the strike zone.

"I was playing catch and I shortened up my stride and I threw the ball and it felt so good," Bell explained. "Then I said, 'OK, forget about that, let's just play catch.' I threw and my stride length was longer than where it was. I shortened it, just shortened it a tad, but everything started clicking. That's all it was."

Bell has yet to allow a run since the All-Star break, when he says he made the change -- and yet the explanation doesn't cover everything. Bell actually started to get sorted out long before the break. From late May through early July, he racked up 22 strikeouts against six walks, converting 12 of 14 saves. That's not the work of a pitcher who's completely lost his command.

Perhaps, in fact, it's the work of a pitcher who found something before July. This is what St. Claire seemed to suggest. He agreed with Bell that the stride length is an issue, but without directly contradicting the pitcher, he made it clear that it wasn't an idea that just materialized four weeks ago.

"We went through it early in the year with him," St. Claire said. "That was early on in the season we had worked on that. ... Since the All-Star break, he's thrown the ball better. He's on a good run right now, so that's good."

St. Claire was measured in his words, but managed to say a lot without saying a lot. He's pleased that Bell is pitching well, and he echoed the sentiment that the Marlins are best served by having Bell pitch the ninth. But it's clear he's not entirely convinced that it's as black and white as Bell shortened his stride four weeks ago and voila, all is well.

"Little things can make ... I'm not saying that, that is the whole answer, but little things can make a big difference," St. Claire said.

Guillen, naturally, was more direct. He's not interested in how Bell got where he is. He just wants it to continue.

"I like that when a hitter gets a couple hits and says, 'I'm back,'" Guillen said. "No you [aren't]. You've got to get another four at-bats. I'm glad he's thinking that way and he's got confidence. But go out and do it. I've got nothing against what he said, but this game is too complicated and too tough to say I've figured it out."

Matthew Leach is a national reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.