April 23, 2013 10:36:57 AM
STARKVILLE -- The disparity in playing time at catcher last season bothered Mississippi State University baseball coach John Cohen.
Cohen didn't like the fact Mitch Slauter started 62 games, and he felt he had done his junior a disservice by not giving him days off late in the season.
Nick Ammirati, MSU's backup last year, agreed and was determined to do something about it in 2013. His latest performance shows he remains focused on being a primary contributor.
A team-leading .545 batting average and three multi-hit games last week helped Ammirati earn Southeastern Conference Player of the Week honors.
"I'm hard pressed right now to find a better catcher in the country right now than Nick Ammirati," Cohen said. "I'm just so proud of that young man because of what he's worked so hard for this season."
Ammirati went 6-for-11 and paced No. 16 MSU with three runs scored and three RBIs last weekend. He is hitting .342 in league play, the team's second-highest after six weeks. Four of Ammirati's six multi-hit games have come in his last four games. With the NCAA's second-largest on-campus crowd (14,562) looking on at Dudy Noble Field, Ammirati went 2-for-3 and drove in two runs in a 6-0 victory against Auburn University to help MSU nail down its third-straight league series.
"I just needed to settle down this season, relax, and just worry about playing my own game," Ammirati said. "While hitting in the eight hole, we had a group of guys trying to get it back to the top of the order. I just had a chance to knock in a few runs and took advantage of pitches to hit."
Ammirati, a Sparta, N.J., native, played in 13 games, including 10 at catcher, last season in his first year after transferring from Panola (Texas) College. He hit .280 and had 37 hits and nine RBIs and started 40 of 50 games at the junior college level. He hoped to earn similar playing time when he moved to MSU, but the member of the 2012 SEC Academic Honor Roll didn't see a lot of action.
Things have changed this season.
After Slauter fractured his left hand at Texas A&M University, Ammirati caught all 27 innings against Auburn, hit .545, and made only one error. He has a five-game hitting streak since taking over for Slauter.
In the fall, MSU coaches noticed an improvement in Ammirati's ability to manage a game and handle pitchers and an opponent's running game. They felt that development would help him earn additional playing time this season. Ammirati has rewarded their confidence. He is third on the team with a .321 batting average in 25 games (23 starts). Slauter has started 24 of 27 games.
"His pop time (time to throw to second base from home plate) is so impressive, but he is picking everything up in those meetings with (MSU pitching coach) Butch (Thompson)," Cohen said. "Everybody asks if our guys call their own pitches and I say, 'Yes, but it's because they know what Butch wants back there.' "
Ammirati will start at 6:30 tonight against the University of Memphis at AutoZone Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate Memphis Redbirds. Cohen hopes Slauter will return in the three weeks. He said MSU's depth at catcher is a major reason for the team's 22-2 non-conference record.
"We've normally been able to run two catchers out there that are elite in college baseball, and that's such a rarity in this game," Cohen said. "We'll get back to that for the postseason I know it because eventually Mitch will be bugging me to play every day here soon whether it's healed or not. That's just his mentality."
Evan Mitchell to get first start in a month tonight
Junior right-hander Evan Mitchell will be properly rested for his start tonight.
The Marietta, Ga., native will be coming off a 30-day rest when he takes to the mound for the first time since not being able to get an out in a loss March 23 at the University of Kentucky.
"We feel like he's done a lot good work in his bullpen sessions, and we have always been a program that likes to reward our players for that," Cohen said. "I'm looking at the intrasquad games we did last week and he was just dominant, flat out dominant."
Cohen also acknowledged professional scouts have been calling the MSU baseball office asking whether Mitchell will get another opportunity after failing to get to six inning in any of his first six starts.
"Now we don't care about that at Mississippi State, and I need to make that clear, but when somebody can throw 97 mph, we get those constant questions about a draft-eligible kid that has so much potential," Cohen said.
Mitchell threw 17 pitches (three walks and a hit batter) in the second game of a doubleheader March 23 at Kentucky. Three of those runners scored and helped the then-No. 8 Wildcats earn a 4-3 victory that helped them clinch the series.
"He might just be the most talented arm we have in our staff, but we had no indication he would go out there and do that," Cohen said after the loss. "We are at the point where we can't be in a 3-0 hole to start a game anymore. In any league, but especially in the Southeastern Conference, that will most certainly get you beat."
Memphis (25-16) will go with senior left-handed pitcher Michael Wills (3-2, 1.96). Memphis is 6-1 against SEC opponents this season, including mid-week victories against the University of Mississippi and a weekend sweep of the University of Missouri in February.
"I think our mid-week success this season (Bulldogs are 9-0 on Tuesday and Wednesday games) is all about maturity and the understanding of our leaders like Wes Rea and Adam Frazier to let guys know how important these games are to your RPI," Cohen said.