Friday, April 23, 2010

SPORTS >> A pretty good catch

Leader sports editor

There is only so much time between games of a doubleheader for a high school baseball coach.

Jacksonville’s Larry Burrows had to address his players, rake and line the infield, make out a lineup and get a quick bite to eat during the intermission between Tuesday’s 6A-East Conference games with Jonesboro at Dupree Park.

But, as eager as he was to bite into his ketchup-slathered hot dog, Burrows took time to answer a question about one of his favorite subjects — Red Devils junior catcher Patrick Castleberry.

“He’s a heck of a player. He’s a baseball player is what he is,” Burrows said, stating the obvious and paying the ultimate compliment at the same time.

Castleberry has been a mainstay of the Red Devils since moving up from junior high and converting from third base, his primary position, to catcher.

Why catcher?

“They needed catchers,” Castleberry said with a shrug.

For a guy who has played as much and is as immersed in the game as Castleberry, taking on one of the most important jobs on the field wasn’t really much of a transition.

“I caught a little bit,” Castleberry said of his previous, limited experience behind the plate. “I just played third base mainly. I just know how to play the game.”

Burrows agrees with that.

“I haven’t seen one better, offensively or defensively, who can get it done like him,” Burrows said. “He’s a super kid to boot.”

When not catching, Castleberry has been known to pitch in relief or play right field. A day off for Castleberry means being the designated hitter.

“He’s so valuable to us it’s just a little scary,” Burrows said.

Castleberry was batting .471 with a team-high eight home runs, 10 doubles and 49 RBI for the Red Devils, who are on a varsity hiatus until resuming play at Sheridan on Monday.

Jacksonville, 10-0 in the 6A-East, returns to conference action with Mountain Home at Dupree Park on Thursday.

As a third baseman, Castleberry was already a pretty good candidate to move behind the plate. Players at the corners have to have quick hands and reflexes for smashes down the line, especially third baseman, since the majority of the hitters in baseball are right-handed.

And it is no coincidence professional catchers sometimes make a late move to the corner spots to save wear and tear on their legs and extend their careers.

“You have to be tough. You can’t let anything by you,” Castleberry said.

While toughness hasn’t been an issue, Castleberry admittedly has had to learn to handle a pitching staff and still takes a lot of pitch selections from his coaches.

“The dugout sometimes,” Castleberry said. “It depends on what kind of game we’re playing.”

But Burrows likes Castleberry’s strong arm and his ability to knock down balls and keep plays in front of him.

“He keeps us in the double play,” Burrows said. “There’s none better around than him. That’s all you can say.”

It is often said a player should always work on his defense because hitting comes and goes. But Castleberry, usually batting in the No. 3 spot, sees himself as a steady producer at the plate.

“I just feel like someone that, 99 percent of the time, I’m going to put it in play,” he said. “You’ve just got to know the situation and put the ball in play and score some runs.”

The Red Devils head into the weekend tied in first place in the 6A-East, though they are in the toughest part of their schedule.

The recent Jonesboro doubleheader was expected to be a challenge, though the Devils took a convincing sweep, 8-2 and 11-3, and Burrows expects stern tests from Mountain Home and Searcy before it’s over.

But Castleberry said he expected Jacksonville to be in contention. In a way, it’s something he has been looking toward since the first time he stepped onto a youth field to join players who are still among his teammates today.

“I’ve been playing since I was three. It’s all I’ve played really besides basketball,” he said. “It’s a team sport. You get to play with all your friends and have fun. We’ve been playing with each other since we were six. We all know each other and know how to have fun.”

But that’s the past. Looking to his future, Castleberry said he has drawn some NCAA Division I recruiting interest, with UALR among his top choices, and he hopes to sign a scholarship as soon as possible.

“I’m trying to go to UALR, hopefully,” Castleberry said. “There’s a few other schools. I’ll probably sign as early as I can just to get it out of the way I guess.”

That led Burrows to make one more pronouncement before he turned to his hot dog.

“If there’s a D-I that ain’t taking him there’s a bunch that need to find another job,” Burrows said.