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Catchers provide Rays home protection

DiFelice and Flaherty might not produce runs, but they help Tampa Bay pitchers prevent them.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- They threw not one fastball, nor snapped off a single curve. On the mound, they were all talk and no action.

Yet when it came to assigning praise for the record-setting performance of the 1998 Devil Rays pitching staff, catchers John Flaherty and Mike DiFelice were near the top of the list.

"We finished up pretty good in ERA last year and, obviously, the pitchers were the ones throwing the ball and they threw well," Tampa Bay pitching coach Rick Williams said.

"But a major reason for that success was the consistency with Flaherty and DiFelice behind the plate. Those guys executed our game plans about as well as could be expected and, to me, that's saying an awful lot."

The Devil Rays finished fourth in the American League with a 4.35 ERA, the highest finish of any expansion team.

That's a tribute to Rolando Arrojo, the top rookie pitcher in the AL. It's a tribute to Albie Lopez, one of the game's premier setup men. The Devil Rays also say it is a tribute to the pair of catchers who stunted running games, were in charge of pitch selection and, most important, helped guide the staff.

"In this game, you get judged on your statistics. We understand that," DiFelice said. "I don't know. Maybe we're just biased because we're catchers and it makes us feel good to feel we actually contribute more than people think we do.

"For me, it's not just catching and throwing. There's a whole other side to the game. It's like being an offensive coordinator for a football team. You have to have a game plan."

Neither catcher made an impact offensively (between them, they hit .217 with six homers and 47 RBI), but manager Larry Rothschild said that was not their chief assignment.

Rothschild considers catching to principally be a defensive position with any offense considered a bonus.

What he wants from his catchers is a complete devotion to the 11-man pitching staff.

"They have to have the feel to work in pitches in the right way," Rothschild said. "That's where the real knack for calling a game comes in -- to know what to stay away from, but not get stuck in a mode of throwing one pitch.

"You want the catcher to recognize when a guy is struggling before anyone else does. The good catchers care. When you talk to them about a pitcher, it'll show. The guys who are more offensive catchers and don't respond that way, it shows too."

In DiFelice and Flaherty, it shows in different ways.

DiFelice, 29, is more emotional. He's more apt to holler at a pitcher and takes a more aggressive approach toward going after hitters. By the end of last season, he was starting games when Bryan Rekar and Tony Saunders were on the mound because his personality better suited their needs.

"Catching the younger two guys, I had to take on a certain focus. I had to be more of a hard-a--," DiFelice said. "I'm in the same boat as those guys, because I'm young too. And I know young guys like to make excuses when things aren't going well, so I felt I had to stay on those guys a little more."

Flaherty, 31, takes a more relaxed approach. Early in his career, he was criticized for not being vocal enough but now says he has learned to win a pitcher's confidence.

"It goes beyond throwing runners out and calling a good game," Flaherty said. "It's how you get Bryan Rekar or Julio Santana to settle down early in a game so he can find a rhythm to get through five or six innings. Or how to get Wilson Alvarez past the fifth when he's throwing (all) out from the beginning."

The added responsibility means added work for Flaherty and DiFelice. During spring training, they are the first to arrive in the clubhouse and have daily meetings with catching coach Orlando Gomez. When the season begins, they meet before games with Williams and the pitchers to develop a game plan for each hitter.

Williams described them as player-coaches on the field, but closer Roberto Hernandez had a different description.

"The catcher is there to be a policeman to see when we're out of control, see when we're getting out of line. The catcher needs to know when we need a pat on the a-- or a smack on the head. He's a psychiatrist," Hernandez said.

"The best feeling is when you have that karma working, where he puts down the sign and you already knew that was the pitch you were going to throw because you're on the same wavelength. There's nothing worse than having him go through a set of five signs because you aren't on the same page."

Flaherty said some pitchers are able to articulate precisely what they need and expect from a catcher. More often than not, however, the catcher must read a pitcher's mood and personality to decide whether he needs a shove or a pat.

Sometimes, Flaherty said, a pitcher might need both.

Of course, there also are games that will be shutouts or blowouts no matter what the catcher does.

"Over the course of 35 starts, there might be 15 where a guy is struggling and then it's our job to help him get past those days," Flaherty said. "You're not going to change a whole season, but you might get a couple of games out of a guy who doesn't have it.

"That's where Mike and I take a lot of pride in what we do. Even at the top of our games we're not going to be Mike Piazza or Pudge Rodriguez, but we're pretty damn good at what we do."

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