With runners on first and third in a drill Wednesday afternoon, Genaro Ciulla went into his crouch behind the plate when the hitter extended his bat, showing bunt.
The Peabody High 5-foot-9 senior catcher stood up and made several gestures to junior ace Pat Ruotolo , who fired a pitch out of the strike zone. Ciulla faked a throw to second, caught the runner at third off guard, and tagged him out after a rundown.
“Catchers are in a unique position,” said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt, acknowledging Ciulla, a recruit to Southern New Hampshire University, and backstops in general.
“They have to have some personality with the umpires to gain their respect, and they need to have the ability to be a leader behind the plate, to make key adjustments when necessary.”
Not too many foes have been successful stealing bases this season on the Tanners (16-6), who earned the fifth seed in the Division 1 North tournament and opened postseason play on Saturday.
And that is mainly due to Ciulla’s prowess in throwing out runners. He has an impressive “pop time’’ of 1.95 seconds (the elapsed time it takes for the ball to go from his glove to the glove of the second baseman/shortstop at the bag).
“You need to have confidence in whatever you do,” said Ciulla, who, after dislocating his shoulder last season was determined to return stronger and quicker.
“You need to trust that you can throw guys out and block balls whenever you’re behind the plate. In some ways catchers are underrated, because their pitcher may have a no-hitter and three of those strikeouts could have been blocked balls in the dirt or a few bunts at the plate, so there is definitely a level of responsibility you have playing the position.”
Ruotolo, who has thrown to Ciulla since age 12, will not disagree.
The two have built a strong relationship as pitcher/receiver, which has played an integral role in Ruotolo developing into one of the region’s premier arms, carrying an 8-0 record with a dazzling 0.42 earn run average, plus 121 strikeouts, into the tournament.
“He’s a real good defensive catcher and he knows my game better than anyone,” said Ruotolo.
“He’s just as important in a no-hitter or a complete game as the pitcher is, and to have a guy like that behind the plate gives me tremendous confidence.”
At Chelmsford High, junior Matt Rabbito has also impressed with his leadership behind the plate, anchoring the Lions’ run to first in the Merrimack Valley Large and a 15-7 overall record. He has 23 hits in 70 at-bats and has thrown out 45 percent of runners on steal attempts.
“If he’s not the key to our success, he’s a big part of it,” said Chelmsford coach Mike O’Keefe. “He’s extremely solid offensively and defensively, caught every inning except for one, and has toughness as his biggest intangible. He’s a bull back there and nothing seems to bother him.
An all-conference selection, Rabbito has the ability to help his pitchers make changes on the fly.
“That position alone you have to be a leader, and he was last year as a sophomore too,” said the coach. “Our pitchers will throw any pitch at any point in time because they know he’ll let nothing by. I used to call pitches, but its great to hear why he’s thinking something, because that confidence is what builds a leader.”
On the mound and behind the plate, North Andover senior Brandon Walsh led the Scarlet Knights to a 16-4 record during the regular season.
His ability to master both roles, as a pitcher and the starting catcher when he is not on the hill, is an advantage, according to North Andover coach Todd Dulin .
“It definitely gives him some insight into what we want to accomplish as a team,” Dulin said of Walsh, who was also the CAL/NEC Offensive Player of the Year on the gridiron for the Scarlet Knights last fall.
“He calls his own games and is really smart in reading hitters and getting them out. Almost always our best baseball players play other sports because they don’t have to learn how to compete; it just comes natural to them.”
The last two seasons, Walsh is 23-3 as a starter, and this spring is hitting .490 with three home runs. Behind the plate, his arm is a huge asset.
“Unless you get a good jump, he can be pretty dangerous in throwing guys out,” said Dulin. “He’s probably the most competitive kid I’ve ever coached in my six years here.”
However, with a fastball that approaches 90 miles per hour, Walsh is headed to the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a pitcher.
And as Walsh has always been in coveted leadership positions, football coach John Rafferty isn’t surprised at how his quarterback has handled the pressure on the diamond.
Brandon “has an intensity about him that makes him driven in whatever he does,” said Rafferty. “As a pitcher and catcher, Brandon has had the responsibility of having the game in his hands, and, much like his quarterback abilities, has succeeded.”
Entering the season, Everett senior Buck McCarthy was pegged as a game changer after he hit .585 as a junior and knocked in 28 runs.
“McCarthy is probably one of the best catchers, if not the best catcher in the state,” said Bettencourt. “His ability to control the game and to orchestrate their defense was why he was so good.”
McCarthy, however, has been sidelined indefinitely with an ankle injury suffered in a game, May 9 against Somerville rounding the bases. The Stetson recruit originally suffered the injury Oct. 1 on the football field for the Crimson Tide against Barnstable. He missed the remainder of the season.
The injury, diagnosed as a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle, required surgery on Oct. 2 at Salem Hospital.
“He’s outstanding,” said O’Keefe. “He’s a two-way catcher, and what I mean by that is that he’s above average defensively and also is an incredible hitter.
“In the tournament last year, he hit a ball 435 feet against us, and it was caught at their place because they have no fence. But he’s certainly a player.”
Every team will be counting on their catchers in the tournament to be consistent and a reliable source of confidence. “Catchers are unique because of how under-looked they get, yet they probably have the most responsibility of anyone on the field,” said Bettencourt.Ryan MacInnis can be reached at email@example.com.