BASEBALL PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Catcher stands out with glove, bat

SPRINGVILLE – During a season in which several area high school pitchers dominated on the mound, a catcher stood out.
South Pontotoc’s David Bowen, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound catcher with quickness, left umpires and opposing coaches in awe this season.
“As Bowen goes, the team goes,” Cougars head coach Bryan Buckner told one of his assistants halfway through the season. “When he would have a bad day, we would have a bad day as a team.”
In his fourth season at the helm of the Cougars, Buckner found himself managing in the Class 3A state championship series. His senior catcher, the best he says he’s coached, had a lot to do with that.
“He led us,” Buckner said of Bowen. “Down the stretch, he played lights out and the team seemed to follow right along with him.”
Although Bowen led his team in batting average (.371) and home runs (13) this season, what separated him from the rest was not easily noticed by outsiders.
“No, I don’t think he gets all of the credit he deserves,” Buckner said. “You’ve got all the gear strapped on for seven innings, sweating your tail off back there.
“But it’s a leadership position and it’s one he’s excelled at. He’s sitting there looking at the whole field, directing traffic, trying to woo the umpires and keeping pitchers calm. He’s done a great job with that.”
His excellence this season, behind the dish as a receiver and at the plate as a hitter, coupled with his leadership has earned him 2009 Daily Journal Player of the Year honors.
“When was the last time you had chosen a catcher?” asked Itawamba Community College coach Rick Collier, who will have the privilege of coaching Bowen next season.
The last full-time catcher to be named player of the year was Dustin Dabbs of Tupelo in 1994. (Tim Dillard of Saltillo caught some when he won player of the year honors in 2001.)
Bowen wouldn’t have been the first everyday catcher in 15 years to be named the Journal’s player of the year if it weren’t for the coaches and umpires who have great appreciation for how he performed in 2009.
“Best catcher in the North,” Houston coach John Ellison said without any hesitation.

What it takes to be the best
The South Pontotoc senior does so many intricate things on the field that it takes a person well-versed in the technical and mechanical ways of the game to acknowledge them.
“Defensively, he’s as good as I have seen,” Collier said. “He blocks the ball really well. I haven’t seen many passed balls with him. That’s what we look for in catchers: to keep the ball off the backstop.
“I would put him in the top running with anyone.”
Bowen’s best pop time – the time measured from when he catches a pitch to the time his throw lands in the infielder’s glove at second base – of 1.82 seconds is certainly among the best.
At the plate Bowen doesn’t shorten his swing with two strikes and he can easily go yard when’s he’s behind in the count.
“Definitely as a coach, you teach hitters to have a shorter swing with two strikes, but he’s an exception to the rule,” Buckner said.
Not to mention, Bowen doesn’t always swing for the fences. If he sees the third baseman playing deep, he will drop a perfect bunt down the third-base line for a hit.
Of course all of this depends on whether the opposing team will risk throwing anything near the strike zone to Bowen, which some teams have avoided doing so, according to Buckner.

Reluctant runners
While some pitchers may refuse to challenge Bowen at the plate, few teams try to run against him, as evidenced by the six stolen base attempts against him this year. Bowen threw four of those runners out.
“Not only they weren’t trying to steal second on him, but they weren’t getting a big secondary lead from first,” Buckner said. “Because that’s probably his best move to me is picking people off first. He’s just so quick.”
Then there’s the slight turn of the wrist to frame a pitch; a technique used in hopes of getting a strike call from an umpire.
“I try to just kind of let the ball come into me and kind of catch everything into my chest,” Bowen said. “Don’t try to jerk it.”
Bowen isn’t just an umpire’s best friend for making a ball-strike call easy; he very well could be considered any pitcher’s favorite work partner.
“I enjoyed every second throwing to him,” said South Pontotoc senior pitcher Heath Kitchens. “He makes it easy on you because he just knows the game so well.
“He knows catching, he knows what pitchers need, he knows how to help you and what to say at the right times.”
Bowen also knows what makes a good catcher.
“It’s the little things, really,” he said.

John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal