TROY, Ala. — To say University of Louisiana at Lafayette catcher Nick Thurman was scuffling when he came up to the plate with a one-run lead in the eighth inning of an elimination game of the Sun Belt Conference baseball tournament with two outs and two on might be an understatement.
Up to that point, Thurman was 1-for-18 in the tournament with four strikeouts. He was a .300 hitter entering the tournament, and he was a .278 hitter entering that at-bat against Texas State.
So of course he drilled a two-run double into the right-center-field gap, providing some much-needed insurance in a win-or-go-on-vacation game.
“Being 1-for-18 before that is really frustrating,” Thurman said. “Coach (Tony Robichaux) told me yesterday … we want you to catch. He said, ‘If you hit, it’s a bonus.’
“So it made me kind of take a step back and take a lot of pressure off myself. When I came up, I was able to relax and put a good swing on the ball.”
The clutch double came at the right moment for the Cajuns, but Thurman’s contributions went well beyond that one moment in the batter’s box. As much as the statistics will show that Thurman struggled in the SBC tournament, they can’t keep track of his true value to a team with three freshman starters and a freshman closer.
Here’s one statistic that won’t pop out of the box score: Thurman spent 18 innings in a crouch behind the plate catching the 267 pitches thrown by Cajuns pitchers Saturday.
“The knees are going to be a little sore tomorrow,” Thurman said. “But I’ll grind through it, keep them going.”
It goes beyond simply being there to be on the receiving end of the pitches. Thurman is the closest thing to a baseball scientist the Cajuns have on the roster.
He called each of those 267 pitches, following the pitching philosophy that Robichaux put in place and analyzing the tendencies of the hitters as they approach the plate.
“The first time through the lineup, I kind of take my time and read their swings, what their tendencies are: Are they a pull hitter, an away hitter, are they on top of the plate, center-back. It depends on what we can get them out with.”
Sometimes, he gets a pretty good idea of it early. In the first game, the Bobcats’ first nine hitters went 2-for-8 with four strikeouts and a walk. In the second contest, they went 1-for-7 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch and two strikeouts.
Once he’s grasped their tendencies and how they’ll approach a specific pitcher? Then you change things around entirely, of course.
“Once you go around the lineup once, mix up what you did so you don’t get into a pattern. And that way, they’re not sitting on one pitch on a certain count,” Thurman said. “We went a lot of first-pitch off-speeds. Then halfway through the game, we had to mix it up and go fastballs first pitch.”
Their second trip through the first game, the Bobcats went 0-for-8 with two strikeouts. In the second game, they went 2-for-8 with a hit by pitch and a strikeout.
It becomes even more important when the reliever gets in. They rely on Thurman as a human database for the batters they haven’t yet faced, trusting his pitch selection in certain situations.
“He sees what’s being thrown every pitch, and that helps us out throughout the game,” said closer Dylan Moore, who saved both the Cajuns wins Saturday. “By the time I come in, he already knows the hitters, he knows exactly what they’re looking for and what to pitch.”
Of course, baseball is a two-way game. Texas State threw a left-hander in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader. It prompted a discussion with the coaching staff about whether to sit a struggling Thurman, who bats left-handed.
Thurman’s defensive ability outweighed his struggles at the plate
“My final vote was he’s too important to our pitching staff,” Robichaux said. “We’ll bury him in the eight hole and let him catch. I talked to him before the game and told him, ‘Here’s what I need out of you: I just need you to catch. Hitting’s a bonus.’”
So Thurman stopped worrying so much about his offensive production and focused on shutting down the other team’s bats.
“You could tell that he genuinely wasn’t worried about his hitting, and guess what happened? He gets a big hit,” Robichaux said. “It’s amazing. You can’t hit all in a knot. I think him relaxing today and just catching helped him get that big knock.”