Brewers catching duo hot at plate

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
— Through their first 10 games of the season, the Milwaukee Brewers have been inconsistent in all three areas of the game—pitching, hitting and defense.

The Brewers could not ask for more than they’ve received from their two catchers, however.

Jonathan Lucroy and backup George Kottaras both have broken from the gate swinging hot bats. They have identical .364 batting averages and similar run production, with Lucroy socking two homers and knocking in six runs and Kottaras bopping three out of the park with six RBIs in only 11 at-bats.

Lucroy is sitting on a 1.126 OPS (on-base plus slugging), and Kottaras features a gaudy 1.682 figure in that department.

“They’re both off to good starts and I think it’s going to carry on through the year,” said Brewers bench coach Jerry Narron, who oversees the catchers as part of his duties.

“They’re both very good catchers. We’re fortunate to have two guys back there who can get the job done.”

The situation is in stark contrast to past years when the Brewers looked under every rock for catching help. After releasing Mike Matheny following the 1998 season because they didn’t think he hit enough, the Brewers began going through catchers the way Donald Trump goes through celebrity apprentices.

Dave Nilsson was expected to hold down the position for several seasons, but injuries eventually forced him to play other positions. After his departure, the Brewers turned the No. 1 catching duties over to the likes of Henry Blanco, Raul Casanova, Eddie Perez, Chad Moeller and Johnny Estrada.

Damian Miller (2005-’07) and Jason Kendall (2008-’09) provided some stability during their short tenures, but both were at the end of their careers. Gregg Zaun lasted only a few weeks in 2010 before blowing out his throwing shoulder and basically ending his career.

Enter Lucroy. The Brewers had little choice but to force-feed him to the majors after Zaun’s injury even though Lucroy had spent only a few weeks at the Triple-A level. The 2007 third-round draft pick figured to be the Brewers’ No. 1 catcher at some point, but the loss of Zaun accelerated the process.

Kottaras, 28, was picked up on waivers from Boston before the 2010 season and provided the Brewers with a backup alternative as well as a left-handed hitter to complement Lucroy, 25. Both are improving defensive players who are showing they can make an impact offensively.

Both catchers had productive spring camps.

“There might have been a little carry-over from spring training, but at the same time I’ve been getting some reps out there. That really helps,” said Kottaras, who normally catches left-hander Randy Wolf but was behind the plate for a strong start by Yovani Gallardo in Chicago.

“I felt good when we broke camp. I was seeing the ball great, having good at-bats. I got a lot of positive feedback from (hitting coach) Johnny (Narron). I just kept my approach the same.

“Sometimes, you’re going to swing at bad pitches. That’s just part of the game. You try to bounce back the next at-bat and get back on track.”

The Brewers made a strong commitment to Lucroy during spring training when they signed him to a five-year extension that could be worth as much as $13 million. Lucroy felt just as strongly about the confidence the club has shown in him at this stage of his career.

“I know they went some time without having catching stability,” said Lucroy, who missed the start of the 2011 season after fracturing a finger in spring camp. “That makes it tough. It’s good to have guys in there you can count on year in and year out.

“That’s what made it nice to get the long-term deal. Everybody can get to know each other better and feel more comfortable with each other. It helps with team cohesiveness when you’re working mutually together for the same goal.”

Kottaras, who batted .252 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in 49 games last season, has worked to boost the club’s confidence in him as a backup receiver. He showed in Gallardo’s pitching gem in Chicago that he can be counted on for more than serving as Wolf’s personal catcher.

“It’s nice to be part of helping the Brewers get more catching depth,” he said. “It helps the organization. You always want to keep learning. You don’t ever want to stay the same.

“There’s a learning curve that comes with the game. There are always situations that are going to come up that you haven’t seen before.”

Lucroy has a burning desire to improve as well. At the media session in Phoenix to announce the catcher’s contract extension, general manager Doug Melvin noted that it’s not in Lucroy’s nature to be complacent.

The Brewers also recognized Lucroy’s leadership potential, something he cultivated during interactions with the savvy Kendall.

“I used to talk to Kendall about what it takes to be a major-league catcher for so many years,” said Lucroy. “He was a good leader and teammate. That’s what I want to do, too.

“I want to be the guy as I get older that other guys look up to and respect. That’s my goal. I think I can do that. That’s the way it should be. You earn it along the way. It’s not given to you; you have to earn it.”

Beyond Lucroy and Kottaras, the Brewers have catching depth at Class AAA Nashville with Martin Maldonado, an improving offensive player who is ready defensively to play in the major leagues now. And Racine native Jason Jaramillo, signed at the end of spring training to catch at Class AA Huntsville, has big-league experience with Pittsburgh.

You don’t have to be an expert in the history of catching in Milwaukee to know it is the best situation the Brewers have had in that department for many, many years.

“We’ve got four guys that are capable of being major-league catchers,” said Jerry Narron. “That’s a nice situation for the organization.

“George and Jonathan have both improved since they’ve come to the major leagues. Both of them do a really good job working with the pitchers and blocking balls in the dirt, and they’re off to nice starts at the plate. It’s nice to have two catchers of that caliber.”

Last updated: 8:08 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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