By Hal McCoy
The guys behind the mask this season for the Cincinnati Reds are a pair of ‘Ts,’ Tucker and Tyler.
It will be veteran two-time Gold Glove winner Tucker Barnhart and rookie Tyler Stephenson performing the team’s catching duties.
For Stephenson, it has been a long and winding trail for a No. 1 draft pick — six years. But, he signed out of high school in 2015 and learning to be a professional catcher takes about as long as learning to be a brain surgeon.
He is only 24. He spent most of last year’s truncated season at the alternate camp and on the taxi squad, the No. 3 guy behind Barnhart and Curt Casali.
Two things happened over the winter to plaster a smile on Stephenson’s face. The Reds did not tender a contract to Casali and they assigned Stephenson No. 37, down from No. 71.
“I was excited because I understood what that means for me,” said Stephenson. “I hate that Casali is gone, he was great. I picked his brain the past few years. But this opens up an opportunity for me to potentially fill his spot. I’m looking forward to it.”
And wearing No. 37? That number once belonged to catcher Corky Miller, one of the team’s all-time most popular players.
“It is something pretty cool,” he said. “I came up in the system with Corky (who was a minor league catching instructor) and he was 37 and it was cool to see that. When I made my debut, he saw ’37’ and sent me a text.”
Stephenson flashed snippets of what he can do in the few opportunities afforded him last season.
In fact, his debut was splashy, literally, on a rainy late July afternoon in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, a game interrupted by a rain delay. The Reds trailed, 7-1, in the seventh inning when Stephenson pinch-hit.
He homered on the second pitch he saw. He stayed in the game and drew a bases-loaded walk off Craig Kimbrell that brought the Reds to within, 8-7. And he threw out rabbit-footed Billy Hamilton trying to steal second base.
“The weather, the rain delay. . .wasn’t fun. . .uh, oh, I mean it was (fun) because I was getting my first action behind the plate. Just getting my feet wet (literally). It was the first one for me and I enjoyed it and obviously wished we had won. It was pretty cool throwing out Billy. . .that was pretty cool. And doing it at Wrigley was neat because so much history is there.
“Everything gets better from there, hopefully,” he said, noting that he has the home run baseball, the lineup card, the bat and the batting gloves stored at his parents’ house. “Those are sticking with me for a very long time.”
Stephenson hopes to collect more memorabilia as Barnhart’s partner in harmony. Barnhart no longer switch-hits and bats only left handed. Stephenson bats right handed, giving manager David Bell the perfect catching option.
“We form a really good tandem that’s dangerous for opposing teams,” said Barnhart. “And we’ll help out the pitching staff and lead the entire ballclub.”
Barnhart quit batting from the right side last year and hit strictly from the left side. And it was not a shout-from-the-mountaintop success. In fact, it was ugly — a slash line of .204/.291/.388 with five homers and 13 RBI in 38 games.
“I had a real productive off-season, did a lot of work, batting left on left,” he said. “I did a lot of soul-searching. I’ve spent my life in Indiana and everybody there has seen me play pretty much my entire life, since I was 5, 6, 7-years-old. “I needed a fresh set of eyes.”
Those eyes came from a noted hitting guru named Benny Craig. He runs a clinic called Feel Good Hitting in Indiana, but Barnhart knew nothing about him.
“He was right under my nose that I had no idea about,” said Barnhart. “We sat down and then we got after it, two or three times a week for two or three hours a day. We tried to mold me back to where I was in my best years in 2016 amnd 2017.”
While his bat was more useful as a fly swatter last yer, Barnhart’s defense never wavered, earning him his second Gold Glove.
“Is Gold Glove a goal? It’s always a goal, man,” he said. For me, and I’ve said it my entire career, I’m a defensive-first guy. The way I play, and the position I play, it is absolutely necessary to be a good defender. And I take a lot of pride in it. I’ll take three, four, five – however many more I can win. I’ll find some spots in my house for ‘em, that’s for sure.”
What Tyler and Tucker really want to do is to combine to help the Reds pick up as many victories as are attainable when the opportunity presents itself.