Sly catchers steal pitches, save games

Freshman Hannah Reed helped drive the Toledo Boomer softball team deep into the state playoffs this year. (Photo by A.J. Wawrak)

Canny field generals, part-time shrinks for moody hurlers and larcenous as any bag-snatching base-runner, catchers are the new stars of baseball.

From the cat bird’s seat, the catcher sees the whole field and is in the best position to direct the entire defensive strategy. The plays we remember often include the catcher as he or she springs up, fully cocked, to throw out a runner at second or third.

While the nation’s attention is riveted on Oregon State University catcher Adley Rutschman as the presumptive No. 1 pick in Monday’s MLB draft, local sports fans have been applauding the heart-stopping plays and subtle tactics of a group of talented Lincoln County backstops.

“You’ve got to be quick and knock down balls that threaten to get by you,” said Newport’s Kaden Bruns, 14, who earned the starting spot this year as a freshman. “You have to be able to reach second base — 127 feet — fast and accurately. To work on that throw-down takes repetition. You throw every day.”

The secret to the position is “being one play ahead,” commented Cubs Coach Taylor Plesha, whose team won the Oregon West Conference title in 2019. He described the catcher’s role as part psychiatrist, part taskmaster.

“He’s got to be a steady force on every pitch, making sure the pitcher is confident when he needs to be confident and holding him accountable when he needs that, too,” he reflected. “There’s a fine line, and he has to know when to crack the whip and when to haul the cart.”

Managing a pitcher’s self-esteem is no small task, given the wide range of adolescent moods on the mound.

“If your catcher gets a ‘rah-rah’ guy who just wants to shive balls by every guy, he has to match that intensity,” Plesha said. “If he’s not a ‘rah-rah’ guy, he has to be a little more insightful. He has to massage that ego.”

Catchers are sometimes born to the role.

“I always wanted to be a catcher,” said Matt Barton, the Cubs’ No. 2 catcher. “I always thought the position was really cool and I wanted to be just like them. I even bought the gear with my own money.”

An ongoing controversy in baseball is “framing,” whereby a catcher artfully catches balls in such a shrewd manner that umpires call them strikes. Coach Plesha is loath to use the term, preferring the word, “receiving.”

“The reason we changed the word is how we want catchers to think about it,” he said. “You don’t want to disrespect the umpire and get a ball called a strike, but if it’s a borderline pitch you don’t want to yank it out of the strike zone.”

Bruns, the freshman catcher, sees it differently from behind the plate, where he is becoming a master of the stolen strike.

“It’s really just messing with the umpire, giving him a different look on where the pitch is,” he concluded. “Batters complain they were robbed, but I just smile.”

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