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MacArthur: Blue Jays' catchers ready for contact at the plate

Scott MacArthur
3/1/2013 7:12:16 PM
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DUNEDIN, Florida - Two former catchers turned managers, Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny, are calling on Major League Baseball to ban home plate collisions. They won't find support from the Toronto Blue Jays.

"The game has been played a certain way," said roving catching instructor Sal Fasano, who caught 415 games over an 11-year big league career. "What would be next? We're not going to be able to take out a guy at second base? We know the risks when we get behind the plate. I think everyone who's strapped on the gear in the past would probably agree with that. We know that it's a necessity, it's part of the game that's really exciting and when done right, you don't get hurt."

Bochy and Matheny have valid reasons for concern. Bochy manages in San Francisco where the team's star player is catcher Buster Posey. One look at the 25-year-old's resume tells the tale: 2010 National League Rookie of the Year, the Giants win the World Series; breaks his leg and tears three ankle ligaments in a May, 2011 home plate collision, is lost for the season and the Giants miss the playoffs; 2012 NL MVP and Silver Slugger award winner, Giants win the World Series.

Catcher Yadier Molina is arguably Matheny's Cardinals' most important player and Matheny himself was forced to retire in 2006 due to the effects of repeated concussions.

In New York, the Mets have instructed top catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud not to block the plate, rather accept the throw in front of home and attempt a sweeping or diving tag. d'Arnaud was the main component, from the Mets' perspective, in the deal that sent R.A. Dickey to Toronto.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons knows first-hand the devastation of a home plate collision. A catcher in his playing days, Gibbons was the 24th overall pick of the Mets in 1980. Four years later, in a spring training game, he took an elbow to the face from Philadelphia's Joe Lefebvre. The play shattered Gibbons' cheekbone, his best opportunity to crack New York's lineup was lost and his career never recovered. Still, he won't be telling J.P. Arencibia or his other catchers to avoid contact with base runners.

"I want them to play like the game has always been played," said Gibbons. "Injuries are freak things and usually if a guy gets one at home plate it's pretty serious, that's the only problem with that. You'll find, if you look at it, most catchers in baseball now they drift out anyway. Very rarely do they hold their ground unless it's important - a game winning run."

Fasano says minor league catchers are more conscious about avoiding collisions, a matter of self-preservation, because they haven't made their money yet. Josh Thole wasn't one of them. He was playing High-A ball with the Port St. Lucie Mets in 2008 when he landed on the disabled list for three weeks with a concussion, the result of a collision with Toronto-born Rene Tosoni. Thole was bowled over by Ty Wigginton in a Mets/Phillies game last season. Carlos Quentin also crashed in to him. Despite the incidents, Thole likes the status quo.

"That's what you sign up for back there. If you don't like it, get lower," said Thole. "There are a lot of times if I see a guy is going to hit me I try to roll off him. I'm not trying to square up with him, believe me. But there are times when there's a bang bang play at the plate and you've got to take it and you've got to wear it. The people who are pushing for it are catchers but I truly feel like it would put me more at a risk because every time I get a ball at home plate I'm waiting to get hit. I'm prepared for a hit every time."

Thole would have none of any attempt to play devil's advocate.

"I would be a little more tentative (if collisions were banned,") said Thole. "I'm telling you, you think it's crazy, there are some crazy people out there. You piss one guy off and the next thing you know he's coming after you. He'll take the suspension if he can smoke you. I don't hit other catchers at home plate. I tried it one time and it didn't end up in my favour. I typically will always slide unless the catcher doesn't give me any part of home plate and then you've got to hit him. If they're going to change the rule I'm going to stand in front of home plate, down the base line, put my knees in front of home plate and then what happens?"

Fasano wants his catchers prepared for the hit. The effort started early in spring training when he conducted what he calls the Flop Drill. The catcher receives the throw with heels planted, toes off the ground, squared to the runner. The drill demands the catcher, upon receiving the ball, fall back from his heels to the ground. A catcher's natural inclination is to tense up, brace himself, instead Fasano wants his charges to relax and absorb the contact.

"It's just one of the techniques we have. A lot of the times you'll have a bang-bang play where you're going to catch it and there's contact going to be made at the exact same time," said Fasano. "The last thing you want is have momentum going toward the runner as he's running toward you. So what you do to cushion the blow is you transfer your weight going back so you can still have an opportunity to catch it and then he should fall on you and you can absorb the punishment instead of giving it out."

Fasano likens catchers to football's offensive linemen. Big, sturdy and durable, they're often a team's last line of defense. The coach has a three point approach to a play at the plate. First, protect yourself; second, catch the ball; third, apply the tag.

"You try to do it in that order," said Fasano. "If one of those things get screwed up, well, you have to complete the play. Most guys, when they don't catch the ball, they go back to re-catch it and that's when they get hurt. You get one shot at it, to complete the tag. Everything is do or die when there's going to be a big collision."

NOTES:

- Second baseman Emilio Bonifacio made two throwing errors on Friday. The first negated a would-be double play in the first inning and resulted in a run for the Rays.

Bonifacio has made three throwing errors this spring. Maicer Izturis, competing with Bonifacio for the starting job at second, also made an error on Friday, his second of Grapefruit League play.

Manager John Gibbons wants to see improvement.

"We've got to tighten up our defense," said Gibbons. "I know it's early but we've been a little bit shaky up the middle. We've had a lot of chances to turn some double plays and we haven't done it."

- Blue Jays participating in the World Baseball Classic will leave Dunedin on Sunday.

Canadians Brett Lawrie, Adam Loewen and Trystan Magnuson, along with Americans R.A. Dickey and J.P. Arencibia, will join their respective squads in Phoenix.

Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Moises Sierra, and Ricardo Nanita will go to San Juan, Puerto Rico to meet up with their Dominican teammates.

- Former Maple Leafs goaltender Curtis Joseph threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Friday's game.

- The Rays have five of the game's top 100 prospects according to Baseball America.

Outfielder Wil Myers, who flew out to centre in his lone at-bat in the eighth, is ranked fourth overall. Myers was acquired from the Royals in the deal that sent starters James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City.

- The Blue Jays (4-4) play the Phillies on Saturday, 1:05 ET at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

R.A. Dickey will throw three innings, making his second start of spring training. The rest of the pitching lineup looks like this:

Josh Johnson (2 innings)
Steve Delabar (1)
Esmil Rogers (1)
Jeremy Jeffress (1)
Ramon Ortiz (1)

Lefthander Cliff Lee will start for the Phillies.

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