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Rays' Navarro displays catching mettle

Perhaps you remember the softness. Certainly, you remember the immaturity. More than anything, you remember the question marks.

Sure, there was some untapped potential inside. Even in the bad times, the underachieving times, you could see that. But where was the leadership? Where was the production? Where was the toughness?

And so you wondered: Will a better day ever arrive?

Ah, yes. Here in the middle of the good old days, you can say that about the Tampa Bay Rays.

Also, you can say it about their catcher, Dioner Navarro, the most improved player on the most improved team in baseball.

These days, he is a promise being delivered. With every game, Navarro looks tougher, smarter, more willing to take command. He looks like a man who has finally figured out his job description.

He looks more like a catcher.

Turns out, the Rays don't need another one, after all.

Who knew?

You wondered, didn't you? Even after Navarro finished last season strongly, it was easy to question whether the Rays should be taking job applications. And so it was during the offseason. The Rays traded for a starting pitcher and a shortstop, and it was easy to ask, "What about a catcher?'' The Rays brought in a closer and a designated hitter, and it was easy to wonder, "What about a catcher?''

These days, the question has changed slightly.

These days, it's more like "What about that catcher?''

"Last year, I didn't really understand what it was to be a catcher,'' Navarro says quietly. "I had an idea, but I didn't fully understand. I didn't have as much confidence. I didn't have (as much) leadership.''

Of course, Navarro didn't have the same batting average, either. And while it is noticeable whenever a batter with a .247 lifetime average is hitting .326 (best among American League catchers), that's not really the measure of Navarro's improvement. Being a catcher is also blocking balls in the dirt, and framing pitches on the corner, and keeping a pitcher under control. It's throwing out runners. (Navarro's 14 are tied for fifth in the league.)

Talk to Rays manager Joe Maddon, and he'll tell you of the small moments when Navarro is working the clubhouse saying this to that pitcher, saying that to another one, comparing notes with everyone within the distance of his voice. Last year, he said, there was none of that.

"His growth has been very special to watch,'' Maddon said. "Last year, Navi took a beating. He took a mental beating and he took a physical beating. He took a beating from the fans. From us. Everywhere. He got hammered, primarily because he wasn't in shape when he showed up, and he got hurt. Here's the guy who was supposed to be the quarterback of your pitching staff, and it just wasn't working.

"After saying all of that, I give him credit for not folding and for not making excuses. He took it and he worked and he got better. By the middle of last season, it started to look right. The second half of last season, I thought his catching improved, his game-calling improved and his hitting improved.

"Starting with spring training this year, he was just a different animal, a different guy.''

Maybe Maddon is onto something. Certainly, Navarro doesn't look like the same guy behind the plate. He hasn't played like it, either. He has looked like a guy who has claimed the area behind the plate as his own.

Remember Navarro's spat with Matt Garza? To the Rays, it was a matter of Navarro taking charge. Put it this way: No one could imagine him doing it a year ago.

Of course, maybe it was just a matter of maturity. Navarro has caught more than 300 games in the majors, but he is still only 24.

"I think it was just a matter of growing up and being with the same guys,'' Navarro said. "My job is to guide pitchers. I have to earn everyone's trust.''

Go back a year, and the trust of an organization was in doubt. Even after his second half, Navarro was told his job was not secure. To his credit, the message took, and Navarro went to work.

"He understood the gravity of the situation,'' Maddon said. "If he lets this opportunity go by, who knows when the next one will come? And what a perfect opportunity for a catcher this is, working with all these young pitchers.

"He's receiving balls on the corner, he's blocking balls. I've always liked his throwing. He doesn't have a gun, but he's above average and he's accurate and he's quick. He's studied hitters, and he's calling a better game. He's receiving a better game. And his interaction on the bench and in the clubhouse are much better.''

Best of all? Navarro seems to get it. After all, a guy can't do his job until he understands it.

"I ain't going to stop here,'' Navarro said. "Hopefully, I can keep this up for 10 years or so. I like being the starting catcher for this team.''

Last year, that might have sounded like a threat.

This year, it sounds like a promise.

Rays' Navarro displays catching mettle 06/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 27, 2008 6:52pm]
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