FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Orioles had loaded the bases last week when Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki trotted to the mound, where Mike Pelfrey was grousing to himself about a bad pitch. Suzuki was in no mood to hear his complaints.
“He just got on my butt. He said, ‘C’mon, [we need] damage control,’ ” Pelfrey said. “ ‘Just keep the ball down.’ I like that. … He’s all business.”
A few innings later, a Brian Duensing breaking ball floated too high in the strike zone, and Henry Urrutia reached out and poked it over the fence, a two-out solo home run. When the Twins got back to the bench, Suzuki was furious. At himself.
“He’s not throwing the ball, he’s catching it,” bench coach Terry Steinbach said. “But he was mad at himself.”
That’s because Suzuki believes each pitch is a reflection of his skill, not just the pitcher’s, a mind-set that has made the Twins’ new starting catcher a popular man with the pitching staff. “He’s always communicating with you. He’s always got ideas,” Pelfrey said. “I’m really impressed with him. It’s going to be fun throwing to him.”
That’s what the Twins had in mind when they signed the free agent, an easygoing, friendly presence in the clubhouse — and a no-excuses drill sergeant behind the plate.
“He’s been perfect,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s not afraid to jump a pitcher and tell them what he thinks, and I like that a lot. He’s not here to make friends.”
But that’s what happens, because the staff knows Suzuki — who has helped guide pitchers such as Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Steven Strasburg to big seasons — will do anything to make them successful, too. For one thing, said lefthander Scott Diamond, Suzuki “loves to work in the dirt. It just gives you that much more confidence as a pitcher to know you can get it down and really be a lot more aggressive.”
The dirt is a pitcher’s friend, Suzuki said, and he can’t in good conscience ask a pitcher to avoid it. “I work from the dirt up. It’s something I take pride in — developing that trust factor with the pitchers so they can just throw the ball and know I’ll block it, wherever it goes,” said Suzuki, 30. “I’d rather have to smother a sinker in the dirt than let you hang a spinner in the air [so] it gets hit a long way.”
Said Steinbach, a former catcher: “[Suzuki’s] got your back, even if it means calling for a 55-footer with the bases loaded. Just throw it, he’ll block it.”
Suzuki has impressed his new teammates with his preparation, too; he’s not simply reading a scouting report, but developing a game plan for every hitter.
“Sometimes you have a catcher who digs in and wants to know everything he possibly can do to help the pitcher,” assistant General Manager Rob Antony said. “And when he’s out there, he’s willing to air out pitchers. Sometimes they need to be woken up. A guy like that saves a trip from the pitching coach.”
In fact, Suzuki has told pitching coach Rick Anderson that “you never should come out with me back there,” Anderson said. “I joke with him, ‘If I come out there, I’m not yelling at the pitcher, I’m yelling at you.’ ”
The Hawaii native, who spent six seasons with Oakland and a year and a half with the Nationals, says he’s no pitching coach, but he usually knows what needs to be said, and he’s been able to make most pitchers respond. “You show them that you care a lot about how well they do, about making them successful, and when you do that, they’ll listen to you,” he said. “It’s about gaining their respect. When a pitcher does well, that’s what makes me happy, seeing them dominate a baseball game. And when they don’t do well, I take it personally.”
Especially those two-out home runs.
“That’s always been one of my pet peeves — two outs and no one on base, the batter is obviously trying to hit a home run,” Suzuki said. “And it’s my job to help avoid that.”