Who Needs Hits?

07/11/2011 – Daily News Record

Turks Catcher Defense-Minded By Mike Barber Daily News Record Sports Department Harrisonburg – With his parents in the stands on the night Blake austin celebrated his 19th birthday, the Turks’ catcher put a charge into an inside fastball, drilling it over the left-field fence at Luray for his only home run this summer.

The three-run blast in the eigth inning gave Harrisonburg a 6-5 win that night.

It was not a typical Austin moment.

The rising sophomore at Auburn is the Turks’ everyday catcher because of his work behind the plate, not at it. He’s savvy at calling games, boasts a cannon for an arm and has a knack for blocking pitches in the dirt.

“That’s my game, defense,” Austin said. “I have to work on my offense a little bit. Defense is what I got to Auburn with.”

Just like the first-place Turks (23-8), Auburn isn’t overly concerned with getting massive office production from the 6-foot, 216-pound Douglasville, GA,, native at this early point in his career.

“I think receiving wise, he’s got a chance to be one of the best that’s been at Auburn,” Tigers assistant coach Link Jarrett, a former Harrisonburg Turks, said. “His blocking is good. His throwing is outstanding. He’s probably one of the best catch-and-throw catchers in thhe SEC right now today. And I think he’s only going to get better.”

That’s high praise for a player who spent the majority of his freshman year on the bench. With Auburn’s catcher position filled by second-team All-Southeastern Conference selection – and – Florida Marlins draftee – Tony Caldwell, a senior, Austin played in just 11 games, starting five. He got only 20 at-bats, hitting a more-than-respectable .300 (6-for-20).

“It’s tough,” Austin said. “You’re playing every day (in high school) and then you come in and have to sit behind a senior gy. You’ve got to watch every day. You’ve got to learn a lot. It’s different. It’s culture shock.

Jarrett said the season as a backup should serve Austin well.

“He was behind the second-team All-SEC catcher, who hit .380 in the SEC and (who) threw out more runners than any other catcher in the history of Auburn baseball,” Jarrett said. “Blake had to learn a little more by watching then by playing. I think it was a good learning process for him, even though I know he wanted to play” And it’s why this summer is so crucial to Austin’s development. After seeing such limited action his first college season, Austin is working to regain his stroke at the plate.

“Sitting out a year, sitting out at Auburn, you have to get your swing back, your rhythm and everything like that,” Austin said. “That’s the biggest thing for me here.”

With the Turks, he is seeing plenty of playing time, though he is hitting just .250 this summer with 13 RBIs and the one home run in 24 games.

Austin kenw he’s be in Harrisonburg nearly from the moment he stepped foot on campus at Auburn. arrett played for the Turks in 1992 and has sent players to Harrisonburg throughout hsi coaching career, maintaining a relationship with owner Bob Wease.

“He recommended me to Bob the first week I got to Auburn,” Austin said. “I knew exactly where I was coming as soon as summer hit.”

Wease said he asks Jarrett to fill particular positions of need, but said the players he’s gotten from Auburn have been so productive – Patrick Savage was one of Harrisonburg’s top hitters last year – that he’s hoping to get a larger contingent next summer.

This year, he asked for a catcher and a center fielder. He got Austin and Jay Gonzalez, who is tied for the Valley League in runs (27) and is second in stolen bases (20).

Austin has shown such an acumen for the game that Wease has let him call pitches this summer. That’s no easy chore considering he’s handling a staff of pitchers he never met before June.

“We’re here for eight weeks,” Wease said. “Once you get to know someone, it’s time to go home.”

But Austin said he bases his pitch-calling on how pitchers thew in warm-ups and bullpen sessions, what he’s learned about them from past outings and anything he picks up on during that night’s game.

“That’s something that comes naturally, just picking up stuff like that and calling games,” said Austin, who said he called pitches for his Landmark Christian High School team.

Jarrett said that probably won’t be a part of Austin’s job at Auburn, where he is expected to take over for Caldwell as the starting catcher next spring. But Jarrett wasn’t shocked to learn Austin had shown he can handle that responsibility.

“That’s good to know he can do that,” Jarrett said. “He understands the game. It doesn’t surprise me he can call a good game. He’s a smart player.”

That’s one of the reasons Wease said he lobbied to have Austin in the Valley League All-Star Game Sunday. But Austin wasn’t among the six Turks picked for the game in Haymarket by a committee that included Wease.

“I know darn well we have the best defensive catcher in the league,” Wease said. “They go by stats. They don’t go by watching the guy defensively or anything like that.”

The Sout squad’s roster included two catchers – Staunton’s Josh Tutwiler (Old Dominion), a former Turner Ashby High School star who is hitting .349 with two home runs and 20 RBIs, and Covington’s Nick Hladek (Butler) who is batting .330 with three home runs and 18 RBIs.

Jarrett said he expects Austin’s offensive numbers to improve as he matures, especially if he can cut down on his tendency to try to pull too many pitches.

For now, though, Auburn is happy with his rock-steady play behind the plate more than it’s concerned with his statistics.

“He’s got some pop,” Jarrett said. “But the defensive part from his position is obviously the most important.”