UA foes should know not to test Toops

The defense of Arkansas junior catcher Brady Toops has been a big part of his team's success this season.

University of Arkansas fans have no trouble telling who is the best defensive catcher in the SEC.

They will tell you it isn't even close and numbers bear that out.

But when it came time to for the SEC to name it's five finalists for the Johnny Bench Award - which is supposed to go to the league's best defensive backstop - inexplicably Razorback junior catcher Brady Toops was not on that list.

"It's not even close," former St. Louis catcher and current UA assistant Tom Pagnozzi said of Toops being the league catcher. "It is almost embarrassing. Why it has happened, I just don't know. But he is hands down the best defensive catcher in our league."

Toops, a scholar who chose Arkansas over Minnesota and Harvard, might have gotten overlooked because his .293 average, 3 home runs and 24 RBIs are not up there with the other five offensively.

"We had five other catchers nominated for the Johnny Bench award," a clearly miffed Pagnozzi continued. "Why wasn't he in there? Offensively he is not a force like some of these other guys, but that is not what that award is all about. It is supposed to be based on defense. It's a shame."

Toops, a 6-3, 200-pound native of New London, Minn., shrugs off his lack of recognition from outside Fayetteville and just points to the fact that he is happy he has been a part of a magical run the Razorbacks (39-21) to a co-SEC championship and the top seed in this weekend's NCAA Regional at Baum Stadium.

"We feel like we have proved we can play with anybody in the nation ," Toops said. "It was our goal all year long. We believed in ourselves and the coaching staff believed in us and it was just a matter of time before we all came together. I am happy enough with that and not too worried about being slighted over some awards."

Toops will get a chance to show off his defensive wares again this weekend when Arkansas battles Le Moyne (36-19) in a 7 p.m. first-round game on Friday night, some five hours after a game between Missouri and Wichita State begins.

Le Moyne has one of the nation's top base stealers in senior outfielder Kyle Brown, who has swiped 42 bases in 49 attempts this season.

Considering Toops and Arkansas has thrown out a league-high 25 runners this season (10 of 16 in SEC play) and picked off a league-high 13 more, it could be quite the battle to watch.

"I like to pride myself on my defense," Toops said. "Coach Pagnozzi has done a great job with me and I've been consistent with throwing guys out and picking them off when our team is in a jam."

Toops was not always a defensive whiz according to Pagnozzi, who said the young man had quick feet, but a below average arm when he first got a look at him two years ago.

"He is a very smart kid first of all," Pagnozzi said. "His problem when I first got here was that Brady wanted to be as quick as possible. But the feet, arm and hands need to work together. Believe it or not, I stressed in slowing him down so the rest of the body would catch up to the feet. That's what is the most important thing because it allows him to get more velocity on the ball."

Now it has all come together for Toops.

"Now people talk about how he is a plus arm," Pagnozzi said. "He could always throw, but it was just getting it to where everything works together."

Pagnozzi set out with a plan for Toops on the timing of his throws to second and he has mastered it.

"We want 2.0 every time - nothing above it," Pagnozzi said. "If you do that, you are going to get them more times or not. Don't try to throw a 1.7 because it is not going to happen. I want an accurate 2.0. He has done a heck of a job adjusting to that."

It's quite possible that Toops will be selected in next Monday's Major League Baseball Draft and not be back next season.

"He'll be around if if doesn't work out, but as a coach you hope every junior gets drafted out of here because that means you are getting the right types of players," Pagnozzi said. " You just have got to make sure you have something to replace them with. With the recruits we have coming in and Blake Parker, we do.

"If you end up with a very senior-oriented team, it's not as good as it is in the other sports," Pagnozzi added. "You want the Major League clubs to want your kids after their junior years."

Like the rest of his teammates, Toops was very excited not only with getting to be a host team for a regional, but also the number eight national seed and a chance to host two weekends in a row.

"We're excited about the national seed and we love to play at home in front of our own fans , where we can sleep in our own beds and drive our own cars to the park," Toops said. "We feel good about the situation that we are in and we are just ready to get it started by playing Le Moyne."

"We know they have a good team because they made the tourney and we will not look past them," Toops said. "We're planning on playing our best and seeing what happens."

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