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Catcher sees better, improves his stats

By ROD GIPSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


TAMPA -- The problem was subtle but noticeable.

A standout catcher for a dominant University of Tampa baseball team, it was last season when Mike Rabelo's problem hitting curveballs against right-handers concerned him enough to seek help.

A visit to a doctor determined he was right-eye dominant -- meaning when batting right-handed, his weaker eye was closer to the pitcher.

Fast forward to this season. Rabelo is hitting .368 with 43 hits, 9 doubles and 3 home runs while remaining a mainstay on defense for the Spartans, currently ranked No. 1 in Division II.

Did Rabelo adjust his stance? No.

Opt for some sort of breakthrough eye surgery? No.

He learned to bat left-handed.

Working with UT coach Joe Urso and assistant Sam Militello, Rabelo began hitting from the other side in August, and the results have been positive.

In 117 at-bats, Rabelo has struck out just 14 times and has an on-base percentage of .436.

"I didn't have any real goals this season besides winning a national championship," said Rabelo, a 21-year-old junior from New Port Richey. "But for this being my first year hitting left-handed, I'm very pleased with how it's going."

But it's not just going well for him offensively. A tireless worker during the year and off-season, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder has started all 33 games at catcher this year. He has yet to allow a passed ball, picked off 12 runners and has a .991 fielding percentage.

"Catching can be mentally draining," said Rabelo, the lone Division II player invited to try out for the U.S. National Team last year. "You get a lot of bumps and bruises, and it can be like being another coach out there."

Especially when in addition to handling pitchers, you're calling the game, as Rabelo is doing for the first time in his career. Setting up hitters, going after certain hitters and knowing how to go after hitters are part of a catcher calling a game instead of coaches.

"I think it's going well," Rabelo said. "It makes you pay attention to a lot of details, and you have to be prepared for that. But it's a part of being a catcher. And they all do it at the next level."

One of the top college catching prospects, Rabelo will see plenty of attention come the draft in June. Originally drafted out of Ridgewood by Boston in 1998, Rabelo chose UT from his many college options to work on his game.

Not bad for a former pitcher who didn't catch until late in his high school career.

A dominant pitcher who threw in the 90s, Rabelo switched to catcher while playing in a fall league on a team that had no catchers. He switched and did not go back -- almost. Two seasons ago, Rabelo went 1-1 for the Spartans, appearing in 11 games and striking out 25.

"I think my pitching days are over now," said Rabelo with a laugh. "But that's okay. I feel like I've made a lot of progress here, especially this season.

"Right now, I'm just concentrated on improving and helping this team win a national championship."

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