Petre Thomas - Ole Miss Athletics

Repetition and Practice Time Will Help Nick Fortes Adjust to a New Position

Nick Fortes didn't have much time to get acclimated to his new home.

Two days before Ole Miss took the field to play Arkansas-Pine Bluff, head coach Mike Bianco approached him with an idea. He wanted to keep Fortes' .301 average and .452 slugging mark in the lineup, but also wanted freshman defensive stopper Cooper Johnson back behind the plate again, especially with Missouri - the SEC leader in steals - coming into town for the weekend.

"I just asked him if he could play first," Bianco said. "He said yes, so we put him at first base that day,and hit him some ground balls. Usually catchers, that position translates a little better there. There are no throws. Yeah, you've got to work to get a little better around the bag, but usually because you've been receiving your whole life you can pick balls in the dirt. Usually, catchers think they can do it, so it is just the confidence and knowing that you can."

The only other time Fortes had slid on a first baseman's mitt was with his travel team in high school, and even that was limited. But he was open to the idea, if it meant his team wold be in a better place.

"I was open-minded to it. Whatever I can do to to help the team win, whether it is first base, catching, or hitting the ball, whatever I can do to help the team win is where I want to be," Fortes said.

He understood the idea behind the switch. Fortes knows Johnson is a great player, despite his struggles at the plate at times this season. First base defense had been an issue for Ole Miss this year already, so really what would experimenting hurt?

"Getting him back in there was big because he hadn't played in a little while and he's a great player," Fortes said. "Him being in the lineup is good for us, so wherever I can be to help us win is where I want to be."

He had just one day to prepare. Bianco approached him with the idea on the Rebels' off day last Monday. Fortes had practice time on Tuesday to field some ground balls to get his feet wet, but then it went straight to game action.

"I had one practice, took some ground balls. We went over the bunt defenses a couple of times," Fortes said. "I'm just kind of learning as I go and hopefully I'll have a good practice today and learn some more."

It's paid off so far. Johnson neutralized the Tigers' run game for the weekend, and had a hit in each of the two games. Considering the fact that he had just seven for the season going into the series, Johnson's improvements at the plate were visible. Fortes had two doubles in the Rebels' nine-run explosion in the series finale.

He's has quite literally learned on the fly. He made an error in Friday night's game, but aside from that played a clean series. He made a couple of good stretches on throws from Tate Blackman and Grae Kessinger, and flashed his athleticism that has made this transition a bit more seamless.

There are times when his catching instincts kick in, and he tries to stop balls with his body rather than his glove, but those habits will be phased out simply through repetition and muscle memory simply taking ground balls and gaining more reps.

"We've just got to take more ground balls," Bianco said. "He's got to get used to moving around and seeing balls. The more ground balls you get the more in between hops, line drives and funny hops you get. Let's face it, in that one inning (on Friday) he got more chance than he's gotten in his life. Diving for a ball down the line, or the top-spin liner hit right at him, he has been terrific."

He's made it work, whether it has been fundamentally sound or not. It's an ongoing process that will get smoother with time. The mental aspects of the position are already coming more naturally. He's not having to think as much about coverages and bunt defenses and what not. It is starting to click.

"Definitely. I just need to practice more and all of that will come more naturally," Fortes said. "As far as the cuts and backing up throws and stuff like that, it is becoming more natural."

It may not be his ideal spot, but it is where the Rebels need him right now, because the offense is swinging it better, and Johnson is playing good defense behind the plate. For all of the different lineups that have been run out onto the field this year, this one appears to be working. 

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