June 26, 2010 11:34:00 PM
The rapport between a pitcher and his catcher is the most important relationship in baseball.
The pitcher has to trust his partner behind the plate not only to call the right pitch, but he also has to believe his teammate behind the mask will stop whatever he throws.
A catcher''s job can be thankless. It requires toiling in the dirt and taking a beating from foul tips and pitches that fall just a little short of their intended mark.
Christian Dale grew to appreciate the value of that relationship this past high school season when he worked with senior catcher Josh Tentoni on the Columbus High School baseball team.
Tentoni, a second-team pick to the Class 6A All-State team, showed Dale the polish and poise it takes to be a quality receiver at the highest level in the state.
Their time together will only help Dale, a rising sophomore right-hander, as he continues to build a bond with rising sophomore Martavious McKinney.
"It is different," Dale said of getting used to working with a new catcher. "He has to get used to my pitches and staying down. Josh was very good at staying down and blocking everything."
McKinney is in line to take Tentoni''s place next season for the Falcons. For the past two months, he has tried to apply what he learned from his mentor in the Golden Triangle''s Dizzy Dean summer league.
McKinney''s education continued Friday at the Dizzy Dean World Series, as he caught Dale for the first four innings of Columbus'' 15-2 victory against Tupelo.
The battery, which first worked together in the eighth grade, shook off a slow start in the top of the first inning and showed plenty of potential in helping Columbus get off to a fast start in the annual tournament.
Columbus coach Jeffrey Cook said McKinney, who was the junior varsity catcher this past season, is "progressing like we need him to." He said McKinney still has "a long way to go, but he is going to hustle.
"Martavious is going to be real important to our team next year," Cook said. "Josh''s hole is the biggest defensive replacement we''re going to have. Josh has been a three-year starter, and we''re looking for Tay Tay to step up and take that spot."
Cook offered encouragement at one point in the game when McKinney failed to keep his body low and move to his right to block what turned out to be a wild pitch. But McKinney, who also is a member of the secondary on the football team, showed the athleticism needed to play the position, moving and reaching to both sides to corral Dale''s pitches.
"Today, it got hot and he missed a couple of balls and he got a little frustrated, but he did a good job," Cook said. "Christian is not the easiest person to catch with a knuckleball and a curveball."
Dale said McKinney is one of his best friends on the team. He said that is important because McKinney is going to be more willing to work hard to catch someone he likes instead of someone he doesn''t like. He said McKinney has made strides since the end of the high school season, and he is excited about their future together.
"He has been working hard," Dale said. "He has been working on his hitting and his blocking. I think he is going to be good for next year."
Dale said McKinney needs to work on his quickness and his throwing so he can deliver the ball faster to second base.
McKinney praised Tentoni for working with him and teaching him a lot about how to be a quality catcher. He said his friendship with Dale will make it easier to develop the close relationship a pitcher and catcher need.
That trust will be different than the trust McKinney would have to earn from Dale if he played second base or left field, the positions he played before he moved to catcher. But McKinney showed in a 5-4 summer league season and Friday he is capable of being the Falcons'' starting catcher.
McKinney said Columbus High assistant coach Eric Ebers moved him to catcher in the eighth grade because the Falcons didn''t have anyone else to play the position.
Tentoni''s graduation opened the door for McKinney and made him want to take on that role.
"He helped me out a lot and got me a lot better," McKinney said. "I just want to keep on going with it. He helped show me how to move and not to be so stiff and how to frame pitches."
Cook said the friendship between Dale and McKinney will be important for the Falcons. He said Dale''s ability to assume a leadership role next season will determine how much he will be able to push McKinney to continue to improve.
"Tay Tay is an athlete," Cook said. "He is going to work hard to get there. He needs to work on framing and receiving the ball. He blocks the ball well and has a plus arm. Those things are going to come with repetition in the spring."
McKinney plans to put in plenty of work with Dale before that. He said it is crucial both players develop a "connection" so they can read situations and know what the other is thinking so they can get hitters out.
"We''re getting there," McKinney said. "I feel I have gotten at least 50 percent better. I started out terrible, but I am getting it back together."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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