LAFAYETTE — During his downtime, Nick Thurman knew the pop quizzes would keep coming.
When Thurman was a freshman and a sophomore, former UL-Lafayette catcher Mike Strentz was responsible for the majority of the behind-the-plate duties. At the front of the dugout, Thurman frequently heard the words, “What would you call here?”
The question came from either head coach Tony Robichaux or associate head coach Anthony Babineaux.
Two years of learning the system helped Thurman tactically.
“I played a mini-game in my head,” Thurman said. “I compared my (pitch) call to their calls. It was a distant perspective, but now in play, it is working well.”
These days, Thurman, a junior from Belle Chasse, is producing for the Cajuns when he’s behind the plate and in the batter’s box.
He has five multi-hit efforts in the Cajuns’ first 12 games as part of his team-high .457 average. From the middle of the batting order, he credits the top of the lineup for getting on base, putting pressure on opposing pitchers and giving him opportunities to hit mistakes. “Thankfully, I have not been missing (pitches),” Thurman said. “I just have to keep doing my best to drive them in.”
Getting ready for the opportunity to catch has been a longer process than what happens during a handful of pitches in an at-bat.
Thurman had to learn a system that does not just involve calling for a fastball, slider or a curve.
A curve may be designed to nip the outside corner or to get a batter to chase it into the dirt.
Thurman has to sort through what an opposing batter has already seen in previous at-bats and what that hitter might expect next.
“In certain counts, hitters look for pitches,” Thurman said. “Behind in the count, you might look for an off-speed pitch that is not a strike. When a hitter strikes out looking, the pitch was not what he expected.”
Robichaux expects the catchers, Thurman and senior Evan Powell, to be active participants in the pitch-calling process.
“We spend hours with the pitchers and catchers,” Robichaux said. “We can’t make them robots. This is not a dictatorship. The pitcher has the right to shake me off or shake the catcher off. We call it three against one. It’s the pitcher, catcher and me trying to get that hitter out.”
Receiving the right to call a game is something Thurman had to earn.
“In that 17-inning game (against McNeese State), we might have called two pitches,” Robichaux said, referring to the coaching staff. “Nick called the rest of them. If Thurman gets gun-shy, I can take it.”
The 17-inning, 5-4 loss to McNeese on Feb. 24 was a valuable learning tool for Thurman. He was able to do a mental progress report on which pitches worked well for certain guys. He saw 265 pitches from seven pitchers, so he had plenty to digest.
“We were in a situation where a hit could cost us the game,” Thurman said. “If a hitter got a hit, I could see whether I needed to go out there to talk to the pitcher. I was able to see how the pitcher reacts.”
Thurman totaled 105 at-bats through his first two seasons. His average was .248 while he was functioning in a reserve role.
Regardless of the number of hits or plate appearances Thurman had, Robichaux noted that Thurman’s attention to detail was a constant.
“In baseball, you don’t get to watch a lot of film,” Robichaux said. “He (Thurman) could have ate sunflower seeds in the dugout, but he worked while he waited. Instead of having the chance come and being the same person — when the chance came, he was more than prepared. Baseball is paying him back.”