The Inside Pitch With Wes Thigpen

As the Book says, the last shall be first. Wes Thigpen doesn't mind where his name comes in the Bulldog batting order, though. In fact, "I like the nine-hole," said the Mississippi State catcher. Good thing because in his, ummm, last nine starts at catcher Thigpen has been booked number nine.

Better thing, this senior backstop has been able to deliver some clutch at-bats there at what has become his end of the offensive order. Thigpen won't rank among any league leaders for a .252 average, understand. But timing is everything in his business and an unexpected hit from his spot can have more impact than two or three safeties elsewhere.

Besides, "There's probably a lot more men on base than people think," Thigpen said. "And it's good to come with somebody strong at the bottom of the list to get us turned back around. So that's what I try to do, get it back to the top."

Of course even the best batting backstops are in orders for the fundamental task of catching the pitch. Here, Thigpen reverts to first in Mississippi State minds. Though it is a true two-catcher rotation in 2011 with classmate Cody Freeman, it is Thigpen taking initial turn 39 of 57 games and 22 of the SEC contests. (Note, Thigpen has also drawn non-conference starts as an outfielder and third baseman.) This doesn't mean Thigpen claims any seniority.

"Me and Cody are real good friends. When the other one is catching we do anything we can for him. It's a good break for us, especially in this heat you have to have your best guy back there no matter who it is." Best as in readiest to put in a successful stint, he means. There was a 20-day, 11-game stretch in May where Thigpen started consecutively; and ironically the first half of that string saw his best sustained batting of the season.

But, "I think I got a little tired towards the end of that. My bat slowed down, I think that might have had something to do with it." Lesson learned. State went back to a 2-of-3 rotation at catcher and, coincidentally, won its way into the post-season by the end of the month.

By another coincidence, Thigpen did not catch or play in Mississippi State's win over Southern Mississippi this year so Friday's regional-opening game was his first look at the Golden Eagles. This year, that is. "We played them last year, we beat them once and they beat up on us once," he recalls. "But we're both different clubs than we were a year ago.

"We had a good, competitive game there (in Pearl this year). And that was a big win for us, we weren't playing good but we found a way at that point in time. We have that confidence going in that we know we can win."

If Thigpen didn't play that one with USM, the pitcher he expects to catch did as Luis Pollorena was key to victory with a superb relief appearance. Now the sophomore transfer will try duplicating that effort as a starter, though in a much smaller park than Trustmark. To that end the two have already worked together in pre-regional preparations, just as Thigpen prefers. Freeman and the pitcher roster, too, for that matter. It has been an interesting season for the catcher pair as they've adapted, sometimes daily, to the constantly-shuffling rotation. Or rotations.

"We really haven't had a consistent guy come out and pitch every single weekend for us. But by the time midweek comes by we know who is going to catch who and we try to catch their bullpens when we're going to catch. Like if I'm catching Friday and Pollorena is throwing then, I try to catch his bullpen; and vice-versa with Chris Stratton or Nick Routt, just to get more experience with them."

Now, Thigpen wants to experience what he came to Mississippi State for: postseason success. The senior sees such opportunity this weekend.

"This a great regional for us. A very winnable regional. We have a lot of confidence going in, we know we have a great team. We're going there to compete and knowing if we don't win, we don't play again."

INSIDE PITCH: It's a fact of baseball learned early by reporters and writers: the best source of inside information on any team is the catcher. That mask only protects, a veteran backstop rarely hides behind it.

So…how about a few Bulldog nuggets? Such as, who is the easiest Mississippi State staffer to catch? That's simple.

"Probably Caleb Reed," Thigpen said. "He just really fills it up and usually puts it wherever he wants it. So he's pretty easy on me." OK, yet doesn't the reliever deliver from any of three arm-slots during a stint? Thigpen agrees. "But I know where it's coming from though, so that helps!"

Even a writer can predict the flip-side response of who can be hardest to receive. "Probably Devin Jones with that hard slider he throws," affirmed Thigpen. "And he's got to throw it in the dirt, but he knows he'll put it there. And sometimes it's hard to block with two strikes." This does offer the catcher a chance to clarify some misunderstandings on the subject though. When Jones, or any other MSU moundsman, breaks one off into the dirt it is almost always called that way…and the catcher has the dirty job, so to speak.

"Exactly. It's a lot tougher than people grant the catching position, you have people on base and are worried about picking people off, worried about what pitch you're going to call next. I think it's just a really tough environment, a really grueling position physically and mentally."

Alright, as we're discussing dirtballs, is there a difference in how SEC fields are prepared for such pitches? Having worked the whole league in his two seasons Thigpen knows.

"I remember Vandy was really tough. They had a really soft area in front of the plate and the ball would stay down a lot. We had a lot of wild pitches and fast balls there. I think Tennessee was the same way. Ours I would say is the easiest, but I guess I would have the most experience blocking on it! This one probably comes-off the hardest but you're used to it."

Easy is a relative term though because hard ground makes for faster action on the ball. "Especially the curveballs, they'll bounce one way and then the other way. You just hope for a consistent bounce."

Speaking of consistency… While teammates can afford to hold grudges with some SEC umpires, Thigpen must stay on working terms with the blue crew. So without getting in trouble who does he rank as a favorite league ump? No one guy, he said, but "We've got a few guys from Louisiana that can relate to me!" The only specific name offered is Jeff Head. And no, it was deemed unwise to delve into who brings up the bottom of his umpiring order.

Finally, given his longer experience in the game, does Thigpen ever get annoyed, even aggravated, when one of those young pitchers won't agree to the ordered pitch?

"Sometimes! There's a lot of times I call something and they shake it off, and I'm like ‘why is he shaking this off?!' But you really have to go with what they're convinced they are throwing. And if they're convinced then I'll be convinced, too." Fact is though, Thigpen and Freeman have earned a sense of pride about their part in developing the first- and second-season MSU moundsmen.

"They gained a lot of experience last year and really are more like juniors and seniors this year. And these freshmen have matured quick. I think they really like having two seniors back there to help them not feel like freshmen."


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