March 24, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Catcher or closer — given the choice it would appear an easy decision to make.
Closer, while high-pressure, is a high-profile position and ideal for a competitor.
Catcher is far less glamorous but a vital, thinking man’s position that keeps a player on the field and in the game for every pitch for all nine innings.
Sophomore Zane Evans is good at both. So how is he choosing?
He’s doing what any college sophomore would, both, deferring to the wisdom of Head Coach Danny Hall — a pretty good way to go.
Hall hinted that Evans would take on a more diverse role heading into 2012 when asked about the bullpen in the preseason.
“I think the other guy you might see a little bit towards the end of games would be Zane Evans,” he said. “When we recruited Zane out of Roswell High School, we felt like he could really help us as a pitcher. We thought he could help us catch and hit a bit, too, but last year he was the only catcher we had and we had to ride that horse almost the whole year. This year we have more catching depth so I think I’ll be able to use Zane, but since he’s our No. 1 catcher, I don’t think it’s a case where we can use him a lot, just from time to time to close a game for us.”
It’s understandably difficult to think about moving Evans out from behind the plate, where last year he was sensational.
In 2011, he became the first freshman to be the everyday catcher since Jason Varitek in 1991. Evans played in 58 games, starting all but one of those behind the plate. He hit .270, with 61 hits, including 14 doubles and five homers, with 46 RBIs. He had 15 multi-hit games, 13 multi-RBI games and chipped in six sacrifices. Defensively he was immaculate, fielding .984, throwing out 11 base runners and picking off another. Evans earned Freshman All-America recognition and even was Academic All-ACC and ACC Academic Honor Roll.
Basically, he did everything but pitch.
Now, he’s even doing that. He’s taken on the role of closer, while continuing to thrive behind the plate.
He believes his first eight innings behind the plate give him an edge in his final inning on the mound.
“I definitely think so because I’ve seen the hitters all game long,” he said. “I kind of have an idea going on the mound what’s going to happen, where I need to throw it and if I mess what’s going to happen. So I think it definitely does help me going in and closing a game after I’ve caught. That definitely helps.”
The added role has earned Evans comparisons with another former Tech great, Matt Wieters, the starring catcher for the Baltimore Orioles and a 2011 American League All-Star.
That comparison means a lot to Evans.
“He was kind of the reason that I came here because I was a pitcher and catcher in high school and I thought they really developed him in both aspects of the game,” said Evans. “It’s definitely an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as [Wieters] because ultimately my goal is to be somewhere around where he is.”
In six relief appearances this season, covering 12 2/3 innings, Evans has allowed seven earned runs (a 4.97 ERA), and nine hits, striking out 13 while walking only four and holding opposing hitters to a .205 batting average. His stuff has made Hall reconsider his use of Luke Bard, who began the season as closer but may soon see expanded action in the rotation — he started the first game Saturday afternoon at Boston College.
Evans’ new role hasn’t affected his catching or offense, which have remained stellar.
Heading into Saturday’s double-header at Boston College, he was second on the team in batting, at .338, and had driven in a team-leading 24 runs, four of those were game-winners. His seven multi-hit games are tied for third on the team and his five multi-RBI games are tied for second. (NOTE: Evans sat out both games Saturday as a precaution after tweaking his right hamstring in Friday night’s game).
Evans’ overall excellence behind the plate, where he’s fielding 1.000, has led to his being named to the watch list for the Johnny Bench Award, presented annually to the top catcher in college baseball. Wieters was a finalist for the award in 2007.
“That’s definitely a great honor,” said Evans. “I’ll try to keep playing the way I’ve been playing and see if maybe I can get an award like that. To be in the same sentence to get an award named after Johnny Bench, that would be crazy. That would be awesome.”
Evans’ pitching may not be limited to just closing. He made his first collegiate start Tuesday in Athens, against Georgia, taking the loss but pitching well — he allowed four runs (only two earned) and six hits in his four innings of work.
The more frequently he pitches the closer he gets toward the quandary that faced Wieters, who chalked up 16 saves from 2005 through 2007 and was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the fifth round of the 2007 June First-Year Player Draft.
“I guess it was up to the scouts in the Majors to decide which one he was going to be better at,” said Evans of Wieters’ decision to concentrate on catching.
His long-term future may take that same path, but he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.
“I’m not really sure where that’s going yet,” he said. “But if I have to say, I hope it’s behind the plate because that’s probably my favorite position.”