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Both sides of the pitch

(ran PW, PS editions)

River Ridge's Billy Phillips excels as a catcher, but his future may be on the mound.

When Billy Phillips is standing on the mound, facing a dire situation as River Ridge's closer, he relies on the advice of the person who can help him most:

Billy Phillips the catcher.

"I see a lot when I'm behind the plate," Phillips said. "And it helps when I pitch."

In just about every close game this season, the routine for Phillips has been to catch five innings, play an inning of third base and finish the game on the mound. Phillips is convinced what he gains mentally from the experience outweighs any physical toll he pays.

"When I come in I know two things: I know where the ump's strike zone is, so I don't need three innings to figure that out," he said.

"And as far as the hitters go, I know what they've done, what they (hit or can't hit), if their stance is open or closed, if they're looking inside or outside. I know their weaknesses."

Through 13 games, Phillips has taken advantage of that knowledge. He has two saves this season, 27 strikeouts in 14 innings and leads River Ridge in most hitting categories. In his past six games, Phillips has five home runs.

Tuesday night against Gulf, he showed how much influence he can have on a game. With runners on first and second in the sixth inning of a tie game, Phillips threw three strikes past Sal Torre. The next inning he homered to give his team a 4-3 lead, and he pitched a hitless seventh inning to secure the win.

"He's a great athlete," Gulf coach Shaun Wiemer said. "And he's a great hitter. We teach our pitchers to go after the hitter. But he got the best of us tonight. He's the kind of player that can change a game."

Phillips' catching-closing combination is rare. Five or six innings at the game's most grueling position followed by an inning pitching at the most crucial junction, often with runners on base, is hardly a prescription for success.

"If a player can do that, I think that's exceptional," Ridgewood coach Larry Beets said. "There's got to be something a little special about that."

Other than one home run allowed in the seventh inning against East Lake, the adjustment hasn't been a problem.

"I love it," said Phillips, who has been clocked at 90 mph this year but consistently throws in the mid-80s and has a hard breaking pitch. "I don't want to say that I thrive on it but it's something I like. I usually only throw about 11 pitches an inning. Starters usually throw 20."

As a catcher, his preferred position, Phillips is a smooth defender with a rifle arm and the kind of leadership and intelligence that define the best at his position.

But as a 165-pounder, he does not fit the prototypical catcher's mold required for a 70-game college season. Recruiters are more obsessed with players having more size before they consider ability.

River Ridge coach Jack Homko thinks Phillips' future might be throwing instead of catching.

"I would not be surprised to see him go to the next level and get turned into a pitcher," Homko said. "He does a real good job with it. He just grew up as a catcher. I don't know if he's got the body type or size when you play 60-70 games. But I think he's got the body of a pitcher.

"Billy wants to be a catcher and I think he can play catcher. He can throw with any college catcher right now but he could slowly evolve into something else."

Unless, of course, Phillips can figure out a way to gain 15 pounds.

"Man, I know, but I just can't gain," Phillips said. "I think if I had a little more weight I'd be (recruited more)."

Based on what he's doing this season and what every coach in the county says, Phillips will play at the next level. Some, like Beets, think he can do so as a catcher.

"Billy gets better every year," Beets said. "That's one of the biggest things you look at."

So much so that Mitchell coach Phil Bell walked him intentionally three times. Beets, who was beaten by a 7th-inning grand slam by Phillips last year, also has walked him intentionally this year.

Gulf didn't. And Phillips homered three times in two games.