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Gator feels right at home

Give Robbie Alvarez a bat and ball and it seems to be all he needs, content to swing off a tee for a half-hour every day before practice. But give him a mask, mitt, chest protector and leg guards, and the Land O'Lakes senior is completely at home.

"I love catching," said Alvarez, who played shortstop his first 10 years in baseball before reaching high school. "You're always in the game on every pitch."

Alvarez is the Gators' top hitter, with a .444 average that puts him third in the county, but his forte is catching. It's easier to count the runs he's scored, but a closer appreciation comes from tallying the potential runs he's taken away from opponents.

"The runners stray too far from the base, he just picks them off," said his father, Alan, who counts 25 baserunners either picked off or caught stealing this season. "He's a very good defensive catcher, and the position comes naturally to him."

Opposing runners fear his arm, but the greater threat might be his zero-tolerance mental approach to stolen bases, or healthy leads for that matter.

"I try to pick everybody off," Alvarez said. "I want to get it clear out of their minds. I want them to fear getting off the bag too far. Then, when there is a hit, they won't get any extra bases."

Alvarez's biggest improvement has been his hitting _ his average is up more than 100 points from his junior year. His father points to his work ethic, starting with a daily regimen of 200 pitches in the batting cage behind their home in the offseason.

"He's very persistent about it," said his father, a mailman who moved his family to Pasco County in 1983, before Alvarez was born. His son used a pitching machine when they first bought the cage, but knew the pitches he'd face in games wouldn't come in straight and easy the way the machine delivered them, so Alan took over the pitching.

Gators coach Calvin Baisley praised the senior's success, beginning with the commitment he brings, whether at the plate or behind it.

"The best thing about him is you know you're going to get 100 percent every day," Baisley said. "He plays hard, plays the way it's supposed to be played. Offensively, he swings at strikes, doesn't try to do too much, strikes out rarely. He's been outstanding defensively."

Baisley doesn't like to play his catchers three games a week, but Alvarez's skills and durability have made that less of an issue. Other coaches have noticed his work ethic and praised the poise he packs into a 5-foot-8 frame.

"He's a hard-nosed, scrappy type of kid," Gulf coach Shaun Wiemer said. "He's a good leader, what you want to have from a senior. I like that kind of player anyday."

Part of Alvarez's success as a catcher comes from the pitchers he broke in with as a sophomore _ seniors Cory Doyne, Derek Thompson and Kurt Shafer were drafted and play in the minor leagues, but they taught the young backstop much about the game before they graduated.

"Once you've caught the best, you know what's expected," said Alvarez, who would like to play collegiately and has worked out for coaches from Saint Leo University. He carries a 3.95 grade-point average that gives him plenty of options academically.

The only thing missing from his senior year has been team success, and Alvarez is confident the Gators can finish the season better than their 6-7 start.

"The last few years, we've been winners, and this year, we're struggling a bit," he said. "But we definitely have the talent. We have strong hitters, excellent fielders, good pitchers. We just need to put it all together."

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