South Xtra: Catcher calling a winning game

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Washington Wild Things catcher Jim Vahalik emerges from his crouch behind home plate and offers his infield teammates pithy advice about the situation his team faces throughout the course of a nine-inning game.

When it comes to the steady stream of advice, comments and game management he offers to the Wild Things pitching staff and infielders, Vahalik, 25, is in a class of his own.

"I kind of black out and say whatever," he said. "I make sure I just tell the infield to dive for balls and encourage the pitchers to throw pitches in the strike zone and get ground balls for us."

The advice is constant and the message is an often repeated one. Not everyone likes his in-game chatter, which is just fine with Vahalik.

"Judging by the other catchers in the league, I'm the only one like that," this Westerville, Ohio, native said. "A lot of teams don't like it, but that comes with the territory. I get under their skin a little bit. I've heard some things here and there from different clubs we've played. If it gets our guys focused and gets them throwing strikes and zeroes on the scoreboard, that's all that matters to me."

Something else that's unique about this Wild Things team is that it's winning.

After Tuesday's 8-5 win against Traverse City, Washington's record was 21-13 and the Wild Things held a two-game lead in the Frontier League's seven-team Eastern Division. With a potent offense, a solid pitching staff and a fine defense, the situation is promising for the ball club and for the fans who are flocking to Consol Energy Park.

To Vahalik, the on-field effort is an extension of what's taking place behind the scenes.

"A big reason why we're doing so well is the thing people don't see and that's in the clubhouse," he said. "We have great team chemistry. We have it right now, and we've had it all year. That's from the great veterans we have and good rookies. That's why we're so successful right now."

Vahalik came to the Wild Things in an unusual transaction. A member of the London Rippers on July 24, 2012, Vahalik became a Wild Thing moments after the two teams played a game at Consol Energy Park that night just before the Canadian-based team ceased operations.

"Maybe it was good timing on both parts," Vahalik said. "[The Rippers] folded that night, and guys were trying to figure out where they were going to go. I was blessed to have Washington come up and offer me a contract right there."

Vahalik said the team has been a solid one defensively since he joined it, and it has become more sound in the two years he has been with the team.

"We've been getting timely double plays in crucial situations, and that's why we're in the position where we are right now in first place," he said.

Two big additions -- pitching coach Kevin Gryboski and hitting coach Bob Didier -- also have been crucial to the team's success, Vahalik asserts.

"Kevin does a great job working with our pitchers," Vahalik said. "He tweaks some things, but he's not changing their mechanics, per se. He works with what they have and improving what they have. That's why our pitching staff is so successful right now."

And the pitchers have been effective, too.

"We have veteran guys who know how to pitch, and that makes my job a lot easier. We acquired [Scott] Dunn from Traverse City and [Chris] Phelan from Schaumburg. Those were two key acquisitions for our pitching staff. We have good rookies, and that's an important thing right now. We have Matt Purnell and Devin Malone, two of our rookies who are throwing well right now. It's good to see that."

As for Didier's contribution, just take a look at the Wild Things offense.

After Sunday's game with Normal, the Wild Things' C.J. Beatty led the league with 10 home runs while first baseman Stewart Ijames has driven in a league-leading 30 RBIs. Center fielder Danie Poma's .364 batting average is fourth best in the league. As a team, the Wild Things are fifth in the 14-team league with a .249 batting average. A year ago, the Wild Things were 10th in the league with a batting average of .250, and two years ago, they were the worst team of the teams to play a full season with a batting average of .226.

"Hitting-wise, we couldn't have a better coach than Bob Didier," Vahalik said. "He's done a lot for our ball club, and not just offensively but with all-around game management. He helps [manager Bart Zeller] with the game management part of it, and he's a great catching coach. We worked a lot with him during spring training day-in and day-out to refine our skills and dust the cobwebs off a little bit."

Vahalik had given thought to walking away from the game after the 2013 season as he was living in Nashville, Tenn., and had a steady job.

"I was sitting behind a desk for four months when December came around, and we didn't have the best of winters in Nashville this year," he said. "So, it was an easy decision for me to come back."

Vahalik has heard the stories of the Wild Things' appearances in the Frontier League playoffs, something that hasn't occurred in seven years. He said the team is working to reach that goal, and to bring more fans to Consol Energy Park.

"If we win, they will come," he said, tweaking a line from the movie "Field of Dreams." "We're trying to redesign that Wild Things brand and polish it off. We want more 'W's' and get more fans to come to the ballpark. And it is fun. From the front office all the way down to the players, there's a buzz going on right now in the organization."

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