One-third of the way through his junior season, Tulane catcher Jake Rogers no longer has to be defensive about his offense.
When the Green Wave (14-7) entertains struggling Illinois State (7-13) this weekend at Turchin Stadium, Rogers can continue to make his newfound case as one of the best all-around players in college baseball.
His sterling defense never was in question. After throwing out a nation’s best 33 base-stealers while also recording the highest percentage (.579) as a sophomore, he has scared runners into staying on first base this year, nailing six of the 11 brave souls who tested him.
He also has not committed an error despite taking chances with snap throws to first and second to try to pick off unsuspecting runners.
The difference is his lively bat.
Having hit .202 as a freshman and .227 last year, he has raised his average to a robust .329 while blasting his first three career home runs and hitting five doubles, matching his full-season totals from 2014 and 2015. His average and on-base percentage (.462) are the best among Tulane’s starters in the absence of injured shortstop Stephen Alemais.
“I’m just going up there and getting some pitches to hit and turning on them when I need to,” Rogers said. “I always wanted to be the guy, and everything is starting to fall now. It’s going good.”
In other words, he is living up to his billing when he arrived on campus in 2014 from the tiny Texas panhandle town of Canyon. A first-team all-state selection from the Texas Sportswriters Association and a .494 hitter in his final year at Canyon High, Rogers never was supposed to be a defense-only catcher.
This isn’t about altering his swing in the offseason. He says it is essentially the same stroke as for the rest of his career.
It’s about belief. After batting .270 in the ultra-competitive Cape Cod League this summer, he returned to school a different player.
“More than anything, it’s confidence,” coach David Pierce said. “He’d always been a good hitter in high school. Right now he’s getting good pitches to hit, and he’s ready for them. He’s got great bat control.”
Batting second in Tulane’s order, Rogers is doing all the big and little things well. He is tied with Hunter Hope for the team lead in runs with 20. He and Grant Witherspoon share team honors for the most walks with 14. He has not grounded into a double play and has two sacrifices.
Combine those numbers with his defensive mastery behind the plate, and the Wave has a tremendous difference-maker as it tries to build on its accomplishments from 2015, when it snapped a six-year regional drought.
“I think we’re very spoiled,” Alemais said. “It goes unappreciated how good he actually is. The only way you get to see that is if you go out and play with other catchers in the summer. We are very privileged to have him because he makes it a lot easier for pitchers and a lot easier for defenders. He’s doing it all.”
Quite unexpectedly, Rogers even leads the Wave in stolen bases with five in as many tries — matching his combined total for the first two years. He would lose a footrace with several of his teammates, but he knows what he is doing when he gets on base.
“It’s pretty crazy that I’m leading it, honestly,” he said. “It’s been fun. I’m just smart and have been getting some good leads and pitchers haven’t been really holding me on.”
It helps that he does not have to run against himself. Plenty of catchers possess strong arms, but Rogers is almost unerringly accurate in his delivery.
“It’s something I pride myself on, but I have to give a shout-out to my pitching staff,” he said. “It’s huge on their parts, too. They keep (the base runners) honest.”
Freshman Ross Massey of Catholic High will replace Corey Merrill as Tulane’s Friday starting pitcher against Illinois State. Pierce said Merrill, who pitched two innings against Texas last Friday before the game was halted overnight by inclement weather, is “tender” and will get an “opportunity to catch his breath” for the Wave’s American Athletic Conference opening series at UConn on April 1-3. ... Pierce said Alemais, a late-inning defensive replacement the past two games, might be ready to play the whole way this weekend. Alemais. hitting .462, strained a shoulder sliding into first base March 5 and missed the next nine games. ... Illinois State has lost five in a row, scoring 16 runs in that span.