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Bell's growth has been fun to watch

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Josh Bell had not hit a walk-off home run since he was a member of the Altoona Curve in 2015. He changed that Friday with a soaring shot for the left field loonies.

“The stadium here is a little bit louder than that,” Bell said.

Bell’s first major league walk-off was just the exclamation mark on a great night for him. He also walked twice and ripped an RBI single with an exit velocity of 103.3 MPH in the 5-2 win over the rival St. Louis Cardinals.

“He did a lot of good things at the plate,” Clint Hurdle said. “We talked about him being dangerous. We talked about him learning as the season goes on.”

He is now tied with Andrew McCutchen for the team lead in home runs with 17, and his 48 RBI are just two off from being the best as well.

“It’s fun to watch him grow,” Hurdle said.

Bell has done a lot of growing at a superhuman pace since his first promotion to the bigs just over one year ago. He showed some of his offensive potential last season, but it did not make up for his poor glove work. He was a -0.4 fWAR player, costing his team eight runs in the field. This year, he has saved three runs. Most of that comes from making routine plays, but even that was an adventure last year.

A perfect example of his defensive growth came in the fourth inning Friday. Jedd Gyoko lined a ball to first, but Bell was perfectly positioned for the shift. He was well off of first base at an angle where he does not get a lot of looks. He bobbled the ball, but was able to keep it in front of him and make a good throw to Cole, who was running over to cover the bag. It’s the type of play that is heavily criticized when it fails and never praised when it goes right. There was nothing to criticize.

At the start of the year he struggled in a new way: at the dish. He was coming off of knee surgery and did not get a full spring. It showed. He hit .138 through his first 10 games. He had one RBI through 14 games. He did not homer until game 15.

Since then, he has cut down on his leg kick and become more selective, offering at fewer pitches out of the zone. He now has a 112 wRC+ and a .484 slugging percentage, both among the team leaders. According to Baseball Savant, in April, he averaged an exit velocity of 88 MPH and a launch angle of 8.3 degrees. Since then, it’s north of 90 MPH at an average of 9.6 degrees. It’s getting closer and closer to being ideal.

His most recent hot streak is coinciding with the club’s best run of the season. He went 8-18 with a home run, three doubles and six RBI in his last five games before the All-Star break- a stretch where the Pirates won five of their last six. Now they are just four games under .500 for the first time since May 29. They are just a game a half behind the division favorite Cubs, and they have a four game home set scheduled for the first place Brewers next week.

A win like Friday’s can go a long way, even if they did not make up any ground in the standings.

“It’s fun when you put a team away like that,” Bell said. “Going into the first pitch tomorrow, you have momentum. You start making strides.”

He has been making strides all season. Bell means more to this offense than anyone, besides McCutchen. More than Josh Harrison. More than Gregory Polanco. More than a soon to be reinstated Starling Marte. Bell is pace for a 30 home run season. In a year where players will most likely hit a record amount of dingers and on a team that does not have a lot of power, he is vital.

If he keeps hitting, fans can keep hoping.

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