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Saturday, Dec 20, 2014
Rays

Rays Beat: Casali gets on-the-job training, big-league style

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— Bullpen catcher Scott Cursi walked side-by-side with Curt Casali toward the outfield at Target Field. That’s part of Cursi’s pregame ritual — escort the starting catcher to the bullpen so he can warm up the starting pitcher.

Casali was making his major-league debut, and the moment wasn’t lost on Cursi.

“Take a look around,” Cursi said. “Take it all in.”

The expansive stadium. A crowd of more than 31,000 slowly filling the park.

It wasn’t lost on Casali that he was no longer with Triple-A Durham.

That moment came earlier in the day when bullpen coach Stan Boroski presented him with a scouting report of the Twins hitters. A scaled-down report, since the Rays didn’t want to crush the kid with too much information, but a report nonetheless.

Back at Durham, Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen would briefly go over the hitters while Casali warmed up the starter in the bullpen.

“There’s a lot that goes into it that people don’t understand,” Casali said.

Catchers are still learning the skill side of the position at Triple-A. The mental side — calling a game and setting up hitters — really doesn’t come into play until the major-league level. By then, a catcher is asked to jump in with both feet and start swimming.

“It’s a quick learning process,” Rays bench coach Dave Martinez said.

Making it more of a challenge for Casali was he didn’t know the Rays’ pitchers beyond catching some bullpens in spring training and maybe an inning or two with a reliever in a Grapefruit League game.

“I don’t feel intimidated with the challenge,” Casali said. “It is a challenge. That’s the fact of the moment, and it depends on what you want to do with the challenge. Do you want to cower over? Or do you want to accept the challenge and get the job done?”

Boroski said Casali has latched on to the challenge with both hands. He started catching the between-starts bullpen sessions for the starters. On days when he’s not playing, he’ll go to the bullpen in the later innings and help Cursi catch the relievers as they get ready to enter the game.

“When they’re in the bullpen getting ready, he’s seeing live stuff,” Boroski said. “They don’t mess around.”

Casali has been catching for a long time, so he’s familiar with life behind the plate. He’s called games. He’s set up hitters.

But he’s never called games and set up hitters in the big leagues, and he’s never done it the Rays, who live by the scouting report.

For Casali, and for every rookie catcher before him, the information was given to him in drips and drabs.

“We have all the information available and as we’re prepping for the game we pick and choose what we give to them, how we give it to them and when we give it to them,” Boroski said. “We’ve found that if we give them small amounts over a period of time, it’s better than giving them everything at once — here it is, you’re catching tonight.”

The top priority is the Rays pitcher. Go with his strengths.

“It’s more important to know what our pitchers are good at doing and then the hitter comes in,” Boroski said. “In situations where they can hurt us and drive in runs, that’s where we’ve got to be real careful with who the hitter is. Other than that, let’s go with our pitcher’s strength. Let them beat our pitcher.”

When the focus does turn to the hitters, it turns to the out pitches — high or low, in or out, hard or soft.

“He’s figuring it out quick,” Boroski said.

It’s almost as if Casali has finally lived his dream of reaching the big leagues only to get slammed with homework and one big test every few days when he finds himself in the lineup.

“It definitely is,” he said. “By the time the game is over I’m pretty tired, almost more mentally than physically.”

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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