Filling Big Shoes

Arkansas has a lot of experience, but not at catcher where standout James McCann leaves a big hole. Jake Wise and John Clay Reeves are trying to fill the void.

Dave Van Horn ticked off the names. Brady Toops (2002-04), Brian Walker (2005-07), Ryan Cisterna (2008-09) James McCann (2009-11) have provided the Arkansas coach a solid run of backstops on the way to a long string of NCAA tournament appearances.

Is that run over? What's Van Horn going to write on the lineup card for 2012 after McCann was the top pick by the Detroit Tigers last summer?

That's the single biggest question mark for a team that seems loaded in every area for Van Horn's third trip to the College World Series. Who is going to be the catcher for this wonderful pitching staff?

Fortunately, Van Horn and staff knew that McCann wouldn't make it past his third season in the Ozarks. They've been recruiting catchers with that departure in mind.

And they may have as good a tutor as there is in college baseball, a man who spent four seasons in the Los Angeles Angels farm system run by Mike Scioscia where everything is done with a mind for producing great catchers.

Walker, who made it to Triple A with the Angels before deciding to coach, improved McCann when he returned to coach for Van Horn last season. And his charge this year is to coach up a nice bunch of young catchers, perhaps led by sophomore Jake Wise and true freshman John Clay Reeves.

"We've been so fortunate to have great catching in my time here," he said. "And we've always had good backups, too. Guys like Blake Parker were waiting to catch if we needed them. But our catchers have stayed healthy, knock on wood. So we haven't needed that depth too much."

But depth might be the best asset for 2012. The Hogs have hardly no experience since McCann went out for almost every inning last season. Wise, his backup, got the last inning a few times and got some pinch-hit at bats even in SEC play.

For sure, Wise didn't get enough time at either the plate or behind the plate to have a leg up in what was a tight fall battle to take over for McCann this spring.

"That was our best battle in the fall," Van Horn said. "It's probably the position on the field that is most up in the air. Reeves, the freshman, battled it out with Wise, who we saw some last year. It's close."

Both are good behind the plate and have some pop in their bat. Where they are different is in their demeanor. Van Horn said Wise had to learn to be more vocal. Conversely, Reeves had to tone down his talk. Walker has been working to mold them into a leader that will talk when needed and handle a great pitching staff.

"We have pitching, we have depth on the field," Van Horn said. "We have five or six outfielders we think can play. But catcher is a spot we are just going to have to watch and evaluate week to week. It may come down to who is swinging the bat. "It could be good because I think both can hit and have some pull power. They both have a little pop."

Again, it's their vocal skills that make them different.

"Jake is quiet," Van Horn said. "Reeves is a little louder. Jake doesn't say enough and Reeves says too much at times. But that can be good. You need to have some confidence to play in this league as a freshman — like Dominic Ficociello was last year."

Van Horn is excited about the work Walker has done with the catchers.

"We have been fortunate to have great coaching for our catchers the last few years," Van Horn said. "We had Chris Curry to work with McCann. He played triple A. And we have Walker now.

"Walker worked with the best in pro baseball. Scioscia was an all-star catcher who runs the whole organization with an eye for catching prospects and all of them learn a little extra from him. Walker came back here with a lot of things that he learned in that organization as far as instructional keys for our guys.

"You can see our guys understand that they can really get better by asking for extra work from Walker. They really have come in for a lot of optional work and Walker has made them better." Walker knows McCann left a big void.

"I say it this way — who is going to carry the torch," Walker said. "We do have a lot of question marks at catcher. We were blessed to have a quality catcher last year, but I don't expect anything different with this next bunch.

"I can tell you that they are both still learning, but every day they become more comfortable. They've done all that they can. The NCAA rules make it tough because we can only have them here so much, but they have done all of the optional things. They do all the drills we give them and they push each other.

"They are learning how to get their bodies in position and all of the little things. They are learning what it is about each pitcher that requires something different from their perspective. They are working to be perfect on every pitch."

Walker wants them to be anonymous for the most part, somewhat like a good umpire.

"At the end of the game, a catcher did his job if you never noticed them," Walker said. "It's like umpiring. If you never had to look up their name, they did a good job."

That's some of what Walker learned in the Angels system.

"There were no excuses with Scioscia," Walker said. "He didn't want to hear it. You needed to be perfect on every pitch. Each pitch from each pitcher is different. You needed to learn them. It took total concentration. That's what we are teaching our guys.

"For me, playing for him was a wonderful experience. You can't imagine what it was like to be in the meetings with him. You know you are in an organization where catching is important. I have tried to take what I learned and carry it to my coaching career. I always tell our players this is not what I think is right, it's what Scioscia thinks is right. He's one of the best and I continue to bring that up."

Walker thinks the Hogs will have good catching. "We are doing the things they will do when they get to pro ball," he said. "Mentally, it's the same things. I think these guys have the arms and they can be good defensively."

Walker likes the way Wise has grown up in the last year.

"He was real timid when he got here, but that's gone and he's ready to challenge our guys," Walker said. "He's got a great arm and the ability to block the ball. It's just learning to do it pitch by pitch now. It looks like the game is slowing down for him where the little things are easy and he can go to another level because he sees it all."

Reeves has the tools, too.

"Soft hands, great arm strength," Walker said. "He trusts himself and is confident. I see all of that in our practices."

There's another strength. They like each other. "I think they believe in each other and know they have a battle," Walker said. "They work together to make sure what we put out there is a quality product at catcher. They work well together."

Reeves said Wise has helped him understand the system.

"He's a year ahead of me and has helped answer all of my questions," Reeves said. "To be honest, I was a little intimidated by Coach Walker when I first got here. But Jake helped me understand the concepts. Now Coach Walker and I are close. I go to church with him Sunday mornings."

Wise said it was good to study McCann's work ethic and commitment last year. That was valuable time.

"Really, that was my preference, to play behind James," Wise said. "He is a great defensive catcher. I learned from him. I got to see when was the time to be vocal from him. I couldn't have learned from anyone better.

"Coach Walker has all the info, all the drills. You couldn't ask for a better coach. He's teaching me the process, how things happen. How to break it down.

"He makes you want to ask for extra work. As a catcher, we need more because so much happens with our position."

Neither seem to mind the competition.

"As an athlete, you better want the battle for your spot because it makes you better," Wise said. "You need someone to push you and we understand that."

They know each other, too.

"John Clay came in here high energy," Wise said. "I don't talk at all and he's got the vocal part down. He talked even when he didn't know what he was talking about. He talked."

Reeves agreed.

"I was a little too talkative," Reeves said. "I understand now it's about saying the right thing at the right time. I'm learning that."

Reeves also learned that his coach had a fiery side that sometimes went too far. He heard about Walker's infamous YouTube video at Ole Miss.

Walker was ejected after protesting — and that's a kind way of putting it — he was hit by a pitch.

"I saw it," Reeves said. "You see his passion right there. I kept hearing about it last fall and finally I went on-line to watch. I think that helped me realize how he played the game and why he coaches a certain way. He loves the game.

"I think some people think it's about talent. That helps, but it's the way you work."

And maybe it's how you play the game, too. So what did Reeves think about the video?

"I don't think the pitch hit him," Reeves said. Sometimes the youngster still talks too much.

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