Part 1: Starting Pitchers | Part 2: Relief Pitchers
Leading up to UConn baseball opening day on Feb. 13 at Florida Atlantic, UConnHuskies.com will take an in-depth look at the 2015 squad with player profiles and position-by-position breakdowns. Up next, a look at the UConn catchers with a focus on All-Conference junior Max McDowell.
By Chris Jones, special to UConnHuskies.com
STORRS, Conn. -- Junior catcher Max McDowell (North Huntingdon, Pa.) surged through the second half of the 2014 season. His hot stretch at the plate was highlighted by a two-game performance at Memphis in early May where McDowell went 7-for-10 with six RBIs. Overall McDowell played in 25 games during the second half of the season, hitting .304 (28-92), including four doubles, his only home run of the season and 25 RBIs.
By turning his season around at the hallway point, McDowell was able to open many eyes across the conference and earn All-Conference first team honors as a catcher. Quite an impressive feat for the then UConn sophomore.
However, this feat was even more incredible because McDowell accomplished all of that on a bad hip, an injury that plagued him throughout the 2014 season.
“It was just an overall pain throughout the game, I struggled to sleep with it at night,” said McDowell.
“It was tough and it limited me catching three games in a row. But I was going to do what I needed to do to get through the year and then take care of it over the summer.”
After the season came to an end McDowell was able to get his hip checked out, fixed, and began rehabbing to get ready for fall ball and the 2015 season.
“It’s good to be back and good to be healthy, I’m excited,” said McDowell. “Waking up with a healthy hip, it’s honestly a relief.”
McDowell and the Huskies have a lot to be excited about as they ready for the 2015 season. Even with the bad hip McDowell improved his numbers across the board from his freshmen to his sophomore seasons. His average rose from .259 to .276, his on-base percentage jumped from .366 to .376 and he notched five more extra-base hits during his second campaign in Storrs.
McDowell enters the season earning Preseason All-Conference honors and is eager to build off his late season success.
“Obviously I can start off a little bit better than I did last year, I was a second half hitter last season,” said McDowell. “I want to bring it every game from the start. Catching, just working with our staff and doing whatever I can do to help them.
Defensively McDowell was solid behind the plate for the Huskies last season, throwing out an impressive 19 would be base-stealers out of his 36 attempts. Head Coach Jim Penders, a former All-Conference catcher himself, explains that McDowell defense will be a major key to UConn’s success.
“Defensively, we are going to rely on him,” said Penders. “His release is one of the best I’ve ever seen, he is on the bag, he has been consistently around 1.9 seconds in games, and who cares what the time is as long as the guy is out and they were out a lot last season,” the UConn skipper added.
Penders agreed that if McDowell is able to improve in a few areas of his game that he could be on his way to a special season.
“We always talk to him about his concentration level and being ready to block all the time,” said Penders. “I think that there is always room for a catcher to get better at blocking. His concentration between pitches has to be a focus, sometimes he can take a vacation between a couple pitches and that seems to hurt. But I expect him to get better at that and I expect him to be one of the best players on our team and also one of the best players in the league.”
McDowell acknowledges the improvements he needs to make in his game and is focused on making those adjustments
“Just locking into every pitch, making sure that balls don’t get by me and working with the pitchers the best I can,” said McDowell. “You have to bring it every game no matter the temperature, atmosphere, how many games I have caught previously, I just want to be on top of my game each and every time out there.”
One of McDowell’s big strengths throughout his UConn careers has been hitting with runners in scoring position. Assistant Coach Jeff Hourigan agrees that McDowell dials it up when the pressure kicks up.
“Max McDowell is one of most talented kids we have on the roster,” said Hourigan. “Max is a clutch player, he always seems to be the guy that when we need a big hit, he comes through. He rises to the occasion. He has led our team in hitting with runners in scoring position since he has gotten here and I fully expect him to continue to come up with big knocks for us.”
McDowell through the offseason added significant muscle as he gets ready for the grind of catching day in and day out. He also hopes it will help him offensively have some more pop.
“The thing with a hip injury is you get to lift the upper body a little bit more,” said McDowell. “So we will see how it helps, hopefully some additional power at the plate. Mostly want to stay in shape to allow me to catch as many games as possible.”
With less than a week away until the season, McDowell is ready to prove that he is one of the top catchers in the conference. If everything is able to click, McDowell has the potential to be among the top all-around catchers in the nation.
While McDowell is certainly in line to see the bulk of work behind the plate, Penders sees the importance of having solid backups in place.
“In order to get the most out of him [Max] we can’t do what we did to him last year which was run him out there almost every single day. We didn’t really have a choice last year but this year I think we have some choices,” Penders said.
Among the active catchers behind McDowell on the 2015 roster is senior Connor David (Cheshire, Conn.), a seasoned veteran who has played in 69 career games, including 45 starts. In his career, David is a .257 hitter with a pair of home runs and 21 RBIs. He is also solid defensively, holding a .993 career fielding percentage.
Also on the 2015 roster behind the plate is junior Alex LeFevre (Mansfield Center, Conn.), a transfer from UConn Avery Point. LeFevre was a 2014 All-New England selection and hit .371 and .309 during his two seasons at Avery Point. Another option for the Huskies behind the plate comes in the form of senior Blake Davey (Newport Beach, Calif.), an All-Conference and All-Region performer in 2014 as an outfielder.
“Blake Davey has really turned it on and really opened my eyes when we really needed him in the worst way to catch against the Canadian team that came down in the fall. We needed him to catch every inning and he ended up catching 14 innings that day and he did a super job,” Penders said.
“I didn’t mess him up at all because I barely worked with him and he has done a lot of work behind the plate in the preseason, even more than we anticipated at the end of the fall but I have loved his body language, he has a real good feel for the game and I think the approach that he has had in the batter’s box has transferred over to behind the plate,” Penders added.
Davey, who hit .313 with 10 home runs and 48 runs scored in 2014, is on board with potential seeing some backstop innings as well.
“Mixing in at different positions is great especially if that gives us the best chance to be successful. The diversity is nice,” Davey said.