Gophers senior Matt Halloran said he figured he’d start nearly every game behind the plate this season. But it didn’t exactly work out as planned.
Halloran started the first game of the season behind the plate, but an arm injury forced him out of the position.
Enter freshman Austin Athmann.
Athmann has started six of nine games behind the plate this season. He leads the team with a .381 batting average.
And he’s done it with very little time to mentally prepare himself for his new role.
“He was kind of thrown into the role, and he’s done great,” Halloran said. “There’s still some things we’re working on with him, but that’s expected of a young catcher.”
Athmann said he knew Halloran was in some pain before the season started.
“I figured there’s a chance of me maybe getting a game or two in, a couple weeks,” Athmann said.
Still, before the team left for its first series of the season, coaches told the freshman to be prepared to catch.
And since the first game, which Halloran started, the area behind the plate has belonged almost exclusively to Athmann.
“[I] told him he was going to have to grow up fast and step in and be our full-time catcher,” said head coach John Anderson.
Anderson said Athmann threw the ball all over the place when the team took infield practice before the first game.
“I was extremely nervous,” Athmann said. “I was gripping the ball way too hard, trying to will the ball to second base.”
Anderson sat Athmann down and reminded him that it was the same game he had played his entire life.
“He was a different guy the next day,” Anderson said.
Athmann said that calling pitches behind the plate has been one of the biggest challenges in his jump to college baseball.
“His high school coach called pitches so he didn’t do it in high school,” Anderson said. “He’s been learning on the run, but I’ve been really impressed with the job he’s done back there.”
Anderson said he might make some suggestions after a game but doesn’t second-guess pitch calls.
“That’s the worst thing you can do for a young catcher,” he said. “I want him to have confidence in himself.”
Athmann has had to learn each pitcher’s tendencies and preferences because each one is very different.
It’s a steep learning curve, but Halloran has helped him along the way with the pitch-calling aspect of the game and with figuring out opposing hitters.
“He’s always on the bench with a piece of paper … writing down each guy’s tendencies,” Athmann said. “In between innings, I come in and talk to him about what guys did what, and the next time we go through the order, he’s got all the tendencies of all the team’s hitters.”
Halloran, who said he is planning on medically redshirting the season, has been helping Athmann in any way possible.
“If I can’t be [in] that role, I’m going to do everything I can to help the team,” Halloran said.
Gophers junior Mark Tatera will also see time behind the plate this season. And freshman Troy Traxler, who has been dealing with an injury of his own, will be behind the two of them on the depth chart.
Anderson said Athmann might be able to catch all three games in a weekend once they get into Big Ten series, but he said that he wants to protect the freshman’s arm.
And while Athmann has adapted to the defensive duties of his role, he’s also stood out at the plate. Athmann said he was initially more nervous about the hitting aspect.
“I really didn’t think it would come this fast,” he said. “I thought I was going to … struggle [in the] first half of the season, but I’m just trying to calm myself down in the box, and it’s really been working out for me so far.”
And he’s impressed his head coach.
“He’s exceeded my expectations by miles for how well he’s played for a freshman,” Anderson said.