- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

The Pitcher Whisperers

Even in Little League I was a no-tool player: completely inept at hitting, catching and throwing. (I could run, but never had any reason to.) The only thing I could do, kind of, was play catcher.

To be sure, I couldn’t even do that. There was no stealing in our league and maybe one play at the plate per year. My only job was to corral pitches. Balls would hit my mitt, thud to the ground, roll underneath me and have to be fumbled out of the dust while the parents in their lawn chairs tried not to think how they’d actually rather be doing errands. Once I retrieved the ball, I’d generally short-hop the pitcher or wing it over his head.

But I did have one specific skill: I could steal pitches off the bored junior-high kids pressed into service as umps. I knew the strike zone with painfully geeky, precocious accuracy and would turn my mitt up, down or sideways as needed. Think of it as extremely primitive pitch-framing.

I was ferocious about defending this tiny bit of turf. It meant more time on the field, which I wanted desperately because I loved baseball even though I was beginning to suspect I’d never get better at it. It meant I got to wear all the cool gear and swagger out like a very scrawny warrior. And it meant I was involved in all the action, instead of standing in right field surreptitiously hunting for four-leaf clovers with my toe while praying to the baseball gods to send the ball anywhere else.

My affection for catchers has never gone away. They have a brutal job, playing a position that will a) destroy your speed and your mobility; b) injure you in small ways every day and periodically in large ones; c) force you to take the blame when pitchers can’t or don’t hold runners; d) require you to study hitters and outthink them; e) demand that you improvise as you figure out which pitches are AWOL; f) make you a critical communications link between the guys in the dugout and the guy on the mound; g) ask you to play both diplomat and lawyer with the umpire standing right behind you; and h) appoint you as the first responder when the pitcher gets that spooked-horse look and has to be coaxed, comforted or cajoled back into line.

Rene Rivera [1] caught for the Mets on Memorial Day, but it was easy to overlook his role in the story. The attention was on Matt Harvey [2], who wasn’t banished [3] to the bullpen or the DL or Vegas or Tartarus but sent back out to face the White Sox. He did so in front of a packed house that was familiar with his recent struggles (and his refusal to speak of them) and jittery to the point of panic about the recent deeds of Chase Utley [4], Adam Hamari and Jeurys Familia [5].

Harvey came out looking great. (Stuffwise, at least — the green camo and blue pinstripes made me remember having to pound on the side of a TV whose color was on the fritz.) The fastball was in the high 90s and moving, the change-up was down in the zone where it belonged, and the slider came and went but was effective enough of the time to be a weapon. Mark Simon and Riley Foreman note [6] that for the day Harvey got a 27% miss rate with his fastball, compared with an average of 8% in his last three starts; he threw 10 change-ups that netted five outs and no baserunners, compared with the six change-ups that Nats converted into three hits, two of them home runs.

But we’d seen good early returns before, so we weren’t convinced: nervousness hovered over every pitch Harvey threw, and he looked grim and weary out there. Meanwhile, the Mets were doing nothing against Jose Quintana [7]. Zero after zero hit the scoreboard, and we waited for something to break, fearing it would be Harvey.

In the fifth J.B. Shuck [8] singled for the first Chicago hit and Brett Lawrie [9] (whose extravagant approach to eyeblack suggests it be called cheekblack) lashed a ball to right — only to have first-base newcomer Wilmer Flores [10] make a stumbling lunge to spear the drive and convert first-and-third, one out and stadiumwide moaning into inning over and rapturous cheers. In the seventh, Harvey allowed a leadoff walk to Adam Eaton [11] and a single to Jose Abreu [12], with Melky Cabrera [13] advancing both with a sac bunt. But Harvey got Todd Frazier [14] to pop up and then coaxed Shuck to hit a hard one-hopper to Asdrubal Cabrera [15] on his 87th and final pitch of the afternoon. The Mets had escaped, and Neil Walker [16] led off the bottom of the inning with a long fly ball that was held up by the wet summer air until it reached the safety of the party deck.

Familia arrived in the ninth to protect a 1-0 lead, sending us all back out on the ledge … which is where this story comes back to Rivera.

Familia’s first couple of sinkers to Dioner Navarro [17] were high, and you could see he was fighting himself out there, trying to force the ball to go where it was needed. Behind the plate, Rivera began directing traffic, signaling repeatedly for Familia to snap his wrist and putting down fingers like a man with all the faith in the world in the pitches he was summoning.

With the count at 3-2 on Navarro, Rivera marched out to the mound for a brief and emphatic conversation, then resumed his duties. Familia’s 3-2 sinker was a beauty that fanned Navarro. That seemed to free up whatever had been stuck: Familia started Eaton out with another good sinker, then got him to tap a 1-1 pitch back to the mound.

The Mets were one out away, and Familia got to an 0-2 count on Abreu. Which was when Rivera went back to the mound.

His mission: to explain why Familia should throw the slider instead of riding that rediscovered sinker. Familia complied and threw one that was low and outside, where it was meant to be. He then followed that up with a high fastball that Abreu awkwardly wrapped his bat beneath, not wanting to swing but getting pretzeled into doing so anyway.

Ballgame [18], and a huge exhalation for both Harvey and Familia. And, if you would, a respectful nod for the dirty, sweaty, weary guy behind the plate — the pitcher whisperer who’d helped them both get there.