Battery mate chemistry leads to success

On May 26, Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke was missing something that has helped define him over the past three years of his major league career. His shaggy brown locks of hair that hang outside his black hat were noticeably gone as he took to the mound before a start against the Miami Marlins at PNC Park.

One thing that wasn’t missing was his confidence.

Even though he’s been shaky thus far in the season, Locke remains in the starting rotation. After earning a win, allowing four hits and no runs over 5 2/3 innings, in that game against the Marlins, Locke has dropped his past two decisions.

Still, he never has to worry about his emotions when he’s on the mound. It’s like he has a guiding light above him, rather, a pilot behind the plate.

Francisco Cervelli has provided the right support to Pirates’ pitchers in his first season with the team. The staff has responded to the 28-year-old native of Venezuela in resounding fashion since they were all acquainted in spring training.

“Like any catcher you’ve never worked with before, you’re starting from nothing,” Locke said after the game on May 27. “What do you like to do? Are you confident with this? We eliminated some things that we don’t like to do and he knows what I like to do that we can always fall back on.

“You can put balls in the dirt or shake him off – it’s something not all catchers get on board with you about.”

The battery mates may not speak directly to each other all that often during the course of a baseball game, but it’s the non-verbal communication that is most important.

Like a quarterback and his offensive line, a golfer and his caddie or even a race horse and his jockey, the pitcher and catcher need to be on the same page in order to come out on top.

“Manny Sanguillen knew me just as much psychologically as the nuts and bolts of the actual playcalling,” said former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass in his book “A Pirate For Life.”

Blass would know about coming out on top as a World Series champion in 1971. Blass and Sanguillen worked a complete game in Game 7 of the 1971 World Series to defeat the Baltimore Orioles, 2-1.

Blass says his best year on the mound was 1968 when he led the National League with a .750-winning percentage, going 18-6. He also sported a 2.32 earned run average with 132 strikeouts, 12 complete games and seven shut outs.

Jerry May was the team’s primary catcher in those days. Unlike Locke and Cervelli, Blass and May came up in the Pittsburgh farm system together and had teamed up on the field many times before reaching the Pirates.

“The reality of a pitcher’s relationship with his catcher is that if he’s on a roll, he is almost his own decision maker,” Blass writes in his book. “By throwing a pitch that the catcher calls for, you endorse his sign. But if you don’t like it, you can change it. He can put anything down, and as long as you keep shaking your head, you’re going to get the pitch that you want to throw.”

It may not be that complex at the high school level, but a prep pitcher will always credit his catcher after a win.

“The defense played great behind me and Devin (Ferguson) was solid back there,” said Steubenville pitcher Nicky Zorne after Big Red defeated Dover in a Division II regional semifinal two weeks ago.

Zorne said he threw three pitches against the Tornadoes, and keeping it low was the key. Ferguson’s set up behind the plate played a role in catching the Dover hitters off guard.

There’s very few positions in all of sports that take as much grit as a catcher. There’s even fewer that demand as much respect.

“I have so much trust in him that we can go in and compete with each other and do what we can to get the win,” Locke said of Cervelli.

(Peaslee, a Weirton resident, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)