Ammirati Delivers As Bulldog Backstop

Earning SEC Player of the Week honors might have been a surprise. Succeeding as the starting catcher? Nahh, no surprise at all to Nick Ammirati. "I always believed in myself, I just wanted to show everybody I could do it."

Ammirati is getting it done for the Diamond Dogs these days. He's taken over the full-time task of backstopping every Mississippi State game and shown himself more than up to the task. And opportunity. "Ammo in the last week has done a phenomenal job," said Coach John Cohen. "The blocks, the receiving, how he's handled the staff. The pitches he's called, the key hits he's gotten, he's just been outstanding."

Enough so to earn conference Player of the Week after a superb Auburn series. Ammirati led the squad with his .545 batting average, despite hitting eighth in the order, with a weekend-high three RBI. Then again this efficiency oughtn't have been so surprising. Ammirati has been steady with the stick in April, raising his season average to .321 which is third-best on the entire team. His offensive contributions have been a boon to the bottom of the Bulldog order.

Yet as is the case with all catchers, what Ammirati does behind the dish matters more than achievements at it. "I really work on just communicating with pitchers and Coach Thompson, and making them comfortable with me. Just working with that."

Consider everyone comfortable and confident. Not to mention fortunate in having a steady senior like Ammirati ready to go full-time while classmate and cohort Mitch Slauter is sidelined by a cracked left hand. An injury which might have crippled many a club has been shrugged off at Mississippi State.

Admittedly this is not the typical backup. Ammirati and Slauter have alternated almost 50/50 through their season, all the more important as it gave Ammirati more games with more pitchers. So he was that much better-prepared to assume full-time status, just as when illness kept Slauter at home during the Arkansas trip. More to Ammirati's point, he prepared for the senior season as if to play every day anyway, having served as the 2012 understudy.

"I got to watch a lot of games last year and I saw what the coaches wanted. So I went out in summer ball and prepared myself. I caught around 50, 60 games so I got my work in. I came back in the fall and tried to have fun."

Nobody in the Bulldog dugout is surprised. Ammirati earned transfer-year respect for his practice and substitution work, most of all how he handled dirtballs. As he said, all he sought was a consistent chance to prove it to everyone else. Now he's taken it and run. And caught, and hit, and driven in runs too. Such as his Sunday grand slam at Texas A&M, which was quite a way to get his first Bulldog longball.

"That was probably my best experience so far, to finally hit the home run!"

Slauter should be activated sometime in early May. He's not excused entirely for now though. "Mitch is right in there with all of us going over the scouting report, and he comes up and gives me pointers." By the way, when a Bulldog catcher speaks of scouting he doesn't mean a quick glance-over the other team's stat sheet. Not hardly.

"It's always interesting going in and talking with Coach (Butch) Thompson. Basically we just go through the hitters, the team's weaknesses, their strengths, who their best player is. How to pitch certain guys. Then we talk about our guys and how they did on the weekend, go over who do you think would be good in certain situations, stuff similar to that." If this makes catching for State sound more like coaching State, you have the right idea.

But coaching only goes so far, and contrary to some public impressions this is no micro-managing operation. Or to be blunt, the catchers are calling the pitches.

"That's my favorite thing about Mississippi State, I think," Ammirati said. "I get to call the pitches. I think we're one of the only colleges in the country to let their catchers call the pitches. It creates so much better flow of a game, not having to look over to ask or see what he wants you to throw." Yes, Ammirati admits, there can be disagreements between thrower and catcher. Sometimes he yields to the Bulldog with the ball.

Other times, he insists. Such as when RHP Jonathan Holder had bases loaded, a full count, and a shutout to finish. "I called a curveball, and that's a tough pitch to throw for a strike. And he threw it in there perfectly to end the game," Ammirati related.

"The pitchers do it too, sometimes I call a pitch and they shake it off and they get it right. That's the kind of relationship we have. I think there's a lot of trust between the catchers and pitchers this year." Besides, the catcher said, not always looking to the dugout for a decision, "It keeps the game moving along and I think it helps. Because I get to evaluate the hitter each at-bat and go off that knowledge."

Ammirati also knows now what a big, really big home game is like at Dudy Noble Field. He can tell folk back home how he caught in front of the second-largest campus crowd ever, this past Saturday. Should the Diamond Dogs maintain their present pace attendance will be good for remaining home series with Alabama and South Carolina. And if State earns Regional hosting rights for June…

It makes for quite a story for old friends in Sparta, New Jersey, right? "They're not going to be able to understand how crazy and amazing it is to play in front of that, unless you actually do it. I just try to tell them its unbelievable and there's no bigger rush than playing in front of fans like that that we have." By the way, Ammirati stresses that he's not so big-city a boy as one would expect.

"I live in a town very similar to this, that has barns and stuff so it wasn't an adjustment for me." Just as taking charge behind the plate hasn't taken any adjusting either for Ammirati.

The Diamond Dogs (33-10, 10-8 SEC) leave today for their top-ten showdown at Vanderbilt. Game times are 6:30 Friday, noon Saturday for Comcast, and 1:00 Sunday.

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