February 7, 2013 11:14:42 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The very last thing Mississippi State University pitching coach Butch Thompson wants to do is make Mitch Slauter be behind the plate in every game this season.
Enter the emergence of senior Nick Ammirati.
Ammirati was the guy last season that would be tapping Thompson and MSU coach John Cohen on the shoulder begging for the opportunity to give Slauter a day off.
"I understand that you have to sometimes wait for your opportunity but make the most of it when it is presents itself," Ammirati said. "It's the catchers and Coach Thompson every day in the office going through film and already going through the season grind."
In the split-squad scrimmages, Cohen had serious hopes at finding an appropriate backup for Slauter after the transfer from Barton County Community College caught all but 29 innings of 2012 season including 10 games in a 12-day period in late May.
"Nick showed up this fall, and to his credit he said, 'I'm going to win an opportunity to play'," Cohen said. "He's worked so hard, and he's become a different guy. His mentality's a little different than others."
In that gauntlet stretch of endurance in May, Slauter caught every inning of MSU's Southeastern Conference Tournament run in Hoover, Ala., teammates were having to pour water over the head of an exhausted 21-year-old in the unbearable humidity of Regions Park.
"The job that Mitch did last year was special because of all the catchers I've had, which have all spent time in professional baseball, I've never had any one of them do what he did," Thompson said.
The MSU coaching staff has high concerns over not overworking their catcher, a position Thompson gives the most physical and leadership responsibilities in the infield, like they feel they did in 2012 with Slauter.
However, statistics show Slauter's workload wasn't necessarily unique to the other elite catchers in the SEC as eight players in SEC were behind the plate in at least 55 games. University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who finished the 2012 season as SEC player of the year and was selected in the 2012 MLB draft first round by the Seattle Mariners, led the league with 66 games played.
"Mitch essentially played every inning of every game and did a brilliant job," Cohen said. "When somebody's really hot behind the plate and they're pushing all the right buttons and doing all the right things, it's hard to take him out of the game."
Slauter, who made only six errors in 586 catches last season, echoed Cohen's thoughts and has no issue with a similar workload. One of the things that has kept the 6-foot-1, 210-pound backstop motivated to work on his game is the fall and spring performances of Ammirati.
"I think everybody, including Mitch Slauter would say Ammo outplyed him in the fall," Thompson said. "I just have to keep reminding both of them through that competition that they're eventually going to be on the same team."
Ammirati, who is a roommate of Slauter's since they both arrived on campus as junior college transfers, is seen as a major defensive weapon with his throwing time from home plate to second base -- referred to by coaches as a '"pop time" -- is at an elite professional level.
His defensive mechanics will go a long way under two coaches like Cohen and Thompson that highly value being able to control the running game of opponents with the battery of the pitcher and catcher.
"He's by far and away our best thrower," Cohen said. "The ability to utilize him versus a running club is very important, and we're going to have that availability."
At the plate, where Ammirati hit .250 in just 12 at-bats last season, has been drastically different for the Sparta, N.J., native as he's showing much more power pop from the right side.
"I love seeing that guy succeed because I truly feel like it'd be an honor to split time with him," Slauter said. "If everybody on this team gets a little better than last year than that gets us closer to Omaha."
Ammirati's development, which has included several extra-base hits this preseason and the responsibility of catching half of the pitchers hoping to win a weekend rotation spot, has a lot to do with the hiring of new assistant coach Jake Wells.
The 29-year-old filled the spot vacated by Lane Burroughs after he left Starkville to become the next head coach at Northwestern (La.) State University. Before getting into college coaching, Wells was a standout catcher at Blinn (Texas) Junior College while also in Alabama at Wallace Community College and the University of Montevallo.
After leaving college, Wells played two seasons of Independent League professional baseball with the Laredo Broncos in Texas.
Wells' primary duties will be working to develop depth at catcher with MSU having a lot of youth and inexperience behind projected starter Slauter at the position.
"When we saw him work with the catchers in our camps, I was immediately impressed with the instruction being given to those young players," Cohen said. "He is somebody that knows the game has been waiting for his opportunity to shine."
"(Catcher) is my spot," Wells said. "That's the position that I was able to play for several years and even a couple after I got out of college. What I want to do is continue a tradition of being elite in the mental side of the game at that position. Everybody can play at the SEC level but some catchers just rely on their natural ability and we're going to focus on the fundamentals of being a leader behind the plate."
As MSU enters the 2012 season on Feb. 15 versus the University of Portland, the Bulldogs coaching staff goes into a campaign with a No. 5 ranking certainly believing at catcher two is better than one.
"I think that the competition has been high and that's not a negative," Thompson said. "It's a positive when Mississippi State baseball can be better when they have two guys they can trust a ballgame to."