CINCINNATI -- Josh VanMeter is not a catcher. The last time he suited up behind the dish was in high school. He has not caught a game as a professional. So when the backup catcher was ejected and the starting catcher sustained an injury, what was going through VanMeter’s head?
For the first time since high school, VanMeter, the Pirates’ second baseman and emergency catcher, threw on a chest protector and shin straps, catching an inning in Pittsburgh’s 9-2 loss to the Reds on Saturday at Great American Ballpark after Roberto Pérez exited with left hamstring discomfort. Pérez was later transferred to the 10-day IL with a left hamstring strain, and Michael Perez had his contract selected from Triple-A Indianapolis. All things considered -- and there is a lot to consider -- VanMeter handled the assignment pretty well.
“He did an admirable job,” said manager Derek Shelton. “Getting back there in a tight game and having to do what he did, I give him a ton of credit.”
When Pérez was laying on the dirt in the top of the eighth inning after collapsing trying to round second base, VanMeter knew he was the next man up. Under normal circumstances, backup Andrew Knapp would have filled in for Pérez, but Knapp was ejected in the bottom of the sixth inning for arguing a check swing call, the first time in his career that he had been ejected.
VanMeter went into scramble mode. He put on a cup. He threw on Knapp’s catching gear. He used Pérez’s glove. Game planning and strategy coach Radley Haddad assisted in communicating with pitchers. When VanMeter squatted behind the plate, his first assignment would be Wil Crowe, who isn’t exactly an easy assignment. VanMeter’s performance likely won’t be taught to any aspiring catchers, but given that his last game at the position came as a 14-year-old, he handled the assignment well enough.
“It happened really fast,” VanMeter said. “Pitchers did a really good job working with me. Didn't bounce too many balls, which made it easy. Sucks that we lost and it unfolded that way, but it's part of the gig. Just got to step up."
While VanMeter had to oversee the seven-run eighth inning that did the Pirates in, VanMeter admitted that he had fun. VanMeter was struck in the face mask by a foul tip, but didn’t realize he had been hit until home plate umpire Will Little asked if he was OK. When Tyler Stephenson came up to the plate, VanMeter’s former teammate joked that this was an opportunity to make a couple more bucks.
“When I went up to hit, I told him just to take it to arbitration so he could get paid a little more,” Stephenson said. “When he came up [for] his last at-bat, he was like, ‘Man, my legs are already hurting.’ It was funny.”
Knapp, though, was far from being in a laughing mood. With VanMeter behind the plate, Crowe’s plan of attack had to change. Crowe looked like his normal self with Pérez behind the plate, recording the final out of the sixth and pitching a scoreless seventh. With VanMeter behind the plate, Crowe looked like a completely different pitcher, reflected in the three earned runs he allowed.
Knapp didn’t receive a warning before being tossed, rather he was immediately ejected by Little. Knapp was surprised that it was Little who ejected him considering he was talking to third-base umpire Nick Mahrley. Regardless of how it happened, Knapp was visibly remorseful when discussing the incident.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” Knapp said. “I feel terrible. Shouldn’t happen. I feel bad for the guys who came into the game to pitch. I feel bad for Josh, the whole team. It falls on me to be smarter than that. There’s really no excuse.”
The Pirates’ attention now shifts to the health of Pérez. The veteran had been playing well on both sides of the ball, posting a 109 wRC+ and two Defensive Runs Saved, but he now appears to be headed to the injured list for significant time. Following the game, Pérez could be seen using crutches. The Pirates are still in “evaluation mode,” per Shelton, but a quick return does not appear to be in the cards.
“As much as you want to win, you just, I personally don’t like to see those things happen,” said Reds manager David Bell. “There’s an injury involved. It was unfortunate. I actually thought Josh did a great job. To be able to do that, I can’t even imagine what it’s like when basically you’ve never done it. My thoughts go out to them, especially Pérez, with the injury.