"Craig had surgery on his wrist this past summer. He actually played last year hurt. A lot of people don't know that both he and Thomas Berkery played hurt with their wrist problems. Both of them had surgery this summer. Craig had his surgery sooner than Thomas because Thomas worked baseball camp and didn't have his until after the camps. Because of that, he really wasn't full strength in the fall. Tatum is still battling it a little bit.
"Tatum had a great fall. He has gotten so much better since he has been here, not only because he works at it, but because he has been blessed with so much great ability. He can really throw. We have worked on his footwork and that is an area where he has made tons of progress. He can probably improve his footwork even more but I don't know if he can ever get more arm strength because I have never coached a guy that has ever had that much arm strength. He has really worked on his swing and I see him hitting in the middle of our lineup. But he can't catch everyday because that is a grind on anybody. I saw how it beat Jason Burkley up my first year here.
"The neat thing about Craig - and I don't think he has figured it out yet - is that he can get better, he knows he hasn't reached that level. I really think that Craig can play professional baseball. And he will have that opportunity.
You mentioned that Craig has improved offensively. What are some areas where he has improved?
"He is able to hit more line drives on a consistent basis. When he first got here, he was a swing and miss guy. Now, the consistency of making solid contact has been huge with him. He has made a lot of progress with his lower half. I don't know if he is going to hit ten home runs this year but he is capable of doing it."
Why do you feel he is a middle of the lineup hitter?
"It's just my opinion, but I just feel he is one of our better guys. For an RBI situation, he is going to put the ball in play and drive in runs. I think that is where he comes into play."
"Where Thomas comes into play is he can do so many things. He is a valuable commodity. He is our second best catcher. I don't know what Coach Polk's idea of using him is, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Thomas play second, third and catch. He is going to have to catch because Craig can't catch 56+ games by himself.
"Thomas has to get his flexibility back. You would think with him being such a good athlete, it would be better. His flexibility is limited in his hips and legs. But his hands are tremendous. His footwork is tremendous. He and Craig do such a good job catching strikes. Pitchers like throwing to those type guys. When they throw it in there, they are strong, firm and catch it right. These two guys do a really good job catching the ball in the stikezone and really making it look like a solid strike.
"The other thing about these two guys is they have been in the system and understand what Coach Rock is trying to do from a calling the game standpoint. Watching them trying to establish angles behind the plate, moving around, calling the game; that is where I hope they will really flourish this sping. Of course, Coach Rock is still going to call the pitches, but, hopefully, they will be on the same page more than they were last year."
If Coach Rock will still call the pitches, where will they fit into calling the game?
"A lot of times Coach Rock gives the (pitch) option to the catcher. Through scouting reports and after playing Saturday and Sunday, those guys better have a feel how to get certain guys out."
Craig obviously has a great arm. How good of an arm do you feel Thomas has?
"The thing that makes Thomas so special is he gets rid of the ball so quickly. When his feet are moving, the ball is almost ready to go. He gets the ball out of the glove so quick - it's almost too quick. When a guy gets too quick, a lot of times there is so much weight going forward it is almost like he is rushing to get rid of the ball."
During one summer, Thomas led his summer league in home runs. Do you expect him to eventually hit with power?
"Last year, toward the end of the season, I really started to feel he had started to figure it out, what certain guys were trying to do, what he could do, what his strengths and weaknesses were. So, it was disappointing to not see him play this fall. I really wanted to see if he could continue making that turn in the corner. Coach Polk, Coach Raffo and myself have worked so hard on the hitting aspect of it."
REDSHIRT FRESHMAN JOSEPH MCCASKILL
"He is probably the most improved catcher this fall. When he left here last spring, I was very down on him about his work ethic, his approach to the game, about his approach of being a Mississippi State baseball player. I brought him in before we even started and told him that I was letting him out of the doghouse but that he had to prove to me that he wanted to be a part of this and be a Mississippi State baseball player. He went off and played this summer and worked at it. He lost some weight and got stronger. He was a pleasant surprise. I am excited for him.
"He still has a long way to do. We talked earlier about a guy catching strikes; he still has a long way to go back there receiving-wise but he is going to be an ok number 3 (catcher). Whether he gets any better will be left up to him. I know he can get better because I saw a great improvement from this summer to this fall. The one thing he does good right now is he swings the bat ok. His footwork and the way he throws the baseball has gotten 100% better. But when he got here, he hadn't caught since his junior year. So, last year was kind of like going to class again, learning his position."
WALK-ON FRESHMAN ELI DEW
"He is a walk-on from Kosciusko, a left-handed hitter who have been in our camp a lot of times and wanted to be a Mississippi State player. He is going to redshirt. We'll see where he fits in the mix as he gets bigger, stronger and older."
Quite a few walk-ons were cut. What did the coaches see in him that made you want to retain him?
"He is athletic enough to be behind the plate. One thing that impressed me about Eli was here was a guy who was a shortstop in high school and learned how to catch his senior year. In fact, he came to our camp to learn how to catch. His arm strength is going to get better, but his accuracy on his throws were right there with Tatum. He was around the bag and in the air a lot of times. And he had some carry and life to his throws. That's what excited us about him."
Where is his hitting right now?
"He has a ways to go there. But a left-handed hitting catcher is rare and you like to always have that as an option."
SOPHOMORES MATT HOUSEL AND GRAY SILVA
"Matt is a Lee Parks type of guy who works his tail off. Guys really respect him for what he does in the bullpen. He works hard.
"He and Gray Silva fit in the same category. They work hard but they are limited in what they can do. They could probably go somewhere else and play. But they are productive here in the roles they have. Without guys like Gray and Matt, those pitchers wouldn't get any better because you need quality guys in the bullpen area who are willing to do the grunt work. They catch bullpens, they get guys loose. They are very valuable to us because, when they come back from the bullpen, they can tell us what the guys have. Those guys are so valuable because they see it all and have a feel for it."
It almost sounds like they are the future coaches of America.
"You are talking to one. I was a grunt guy. I spent a lot of time in the bullpen and didn't mind doing it. When I was at South Alabama, that was my job and I enjoyed doing it. But it takes a special person and both of these kids are special people."
PART 1 THROUGH 3...
Gene Swindoll is the publisher and owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial site for Mississippi State sports since October, 1996. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org