Sixty feet between: Pitching-catching bond drives St. Edward’s baseball team

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated throughout.

St. Edward’s University currently holds an 11-5 record, and has earned three Heartland Conference weekly honors since the start of baseball season.

On Tuesday, senior Gable Whitacre was named the Hitter of the Week. On the pitching side, senior Stuart Springer claimed the Pitcher of the Week title Feb. 21 and sophomore Tanner Lawson won Feb. 14.

“I’m grateful for the honor, but it’s a team effort,” Springer said. “If I wouldn’t have had the defense playing behind me as much as they did, and obviously, the team hitting the ball and getting that lead, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get that complete game.”

Across the board, this year’s team is composed of upperclassmen transfers and younger players, with Whitacre and outfielder Miles Wright being the only seniors to have played on Lucian-Hamilton Field for their entire careers.

Strong offense is key in outscoring opponents 134-72, but so is smart defense. And in front of each dominant pitcher, there is a steady catcher doing their best to frame throws in their pitcher’s favor.

Crouched behind home plate, Whitacre is armored in gear with his back towards the crowd, assuming his quiet role as a catcher.

“The No. 1 priority as a catcher is making sure your pitcher is doing well,” Whitacre said. “As a pitcher, you play the hardest position in the game. To be the guy with the ball in your hand, really controlling what happens, is a lot to have responsibility over.”

Whether his pitchers are succeeding or struggling on the mound, Whitacre tries to make sure they maintain confidence to throw strikes, stay ahead in the count and have easy innings with quick outs.

“Whenever I can put up a target and the pitchers hit it, and most of them do, it’s pretty nice. That’s what I’ve been spoiled with for four years here,” Whitacre said. “Ever since my freshman year, pitching has always been the real strength of this team — and this year, I think we have a chance for that too.”

Springer, Lawson and freshman Joel Miller are the only left-handed pitchers in a bullpen of 18. Most opposing batters are right-handed. Whitacre says this contrast is advantageous because LHPs tend to use more change-ups. This also adds another level of concentration for Whitacre, as he uses hand signals to coordinate which variation of four-pitches they will throw at him next.

An avid baseball enthusiast, Whitacre grew up in Austin appreciating the selfless style Grady Sizemore showed when playing for the Cleveland Indians. He was a standout ballplayer at James Bowie High School, where he graduated in 2013.

He wears jersey number 55 like MLB All-Star catcher Russell Martin, who is known for his strong arm and hitting consistency. Also like Martin, Whitacre defeats the stereotype that catchers are slow runners. Prior to taking on the primary catching position, he was a starting left fielder and designated hitter.

“He’s easy to joke around with,” Head Coach Rob Penders said of Whitacre’s personality. “You can give him a hard time, and he’ll give it right back to you — and it’s always just a good time. He knows how to have fun, and when to turn it off and get serious, so guys respect him.”

Both Whitacre and senior right fielder Romeo Cortina, Jr. have hit home runs in two-straight games. Whitacre also has a .431 batting average, and leads the team in multi-hit games with 10.

The reigning Hitter of the Week leads the conference in RBIs with 24 and has a 14-game hitting streak. His five home runs have him tied for the most in the conference. He was also named the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) South Central Region Hitter of the Week on March 1.

Whitacre says some situations call for “hitting the ball hard,” while others require “passing the at-bat to the next guy” or a “sacrifice for the team” with a fly-ball, ground ball or bunt. “Batters 1-9, that’s what we try to do – and so far, it’s been working.”

In the classroom, Whitacre is studying marketing – and his negotiating skills also help behind the plate.

“With the umpires, it’s just give and take,” Whitacre said. “You don’t want to come off too strong at the beginning of a game, if say you think you caught a strike and he calls it a ball. But at the same time, you’re fighting for your pitcher out there.”

If he disagrees, Whitacre politely asks the umpire to tell him specific mechanics adjustments he can make to maximize strikes for his pitcher. This way, he and the umpire “are on the same page, rather than butting heads.”

During Whitacre’s tenure, the baseball team has reached three-straight conference championship titles and postseason appearances at NCAA Regionals. As one of the few four-year starters, Whitacre says he finds it important to serve as an example to his team, because the goal of reaching the College World Series will require lots of hard work.

“He’s been an outstanding player for us for four full years, and it’s not always that you get guys to do that,” Penders said, noting his athleticism as a utility player. “He’s a guy that comes in with the right attitude, and everyone on the team likes him.”