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Tigers’ McCann works to attain ‘last piece of puzzle’

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Catching mechanics.

You don’t read or hear too much about that part of the game, not nearly as much as you do the mechanics of hitting and pitching. But that doesn’t mean it is any less important. Improper mechanics behind the plate lead to extra bases, and extra bases lead to runs.

A catcher’s ability to softly block pitches in the dirt, even though it doesn’t happen with the same frequency in a game, is as important a skill as pitch-framing.

Which is why Tigers catcher James McCann gets up literally up at the crack of dawn during the early weeks of spring training to work on blocking balls.

He will go into the batting cage in full gear, have bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer feed balls into the pitching machine, and block ball after ball after ball.

K-Rod: Too early to push ‘panic button’ on Tigers’ ’pen

It’s why McCann was on the field about three hours before game time in Cleveland on Friday, in full gear, back to the wall down the right-field line, blocking balls thrown in the dirt by bullpen catcher John Murrian.

Because for all that McCann does well defensively — one of the best throwing arms in the game, strong field general, improving daily as a pitch-caller and pitch-framer — the thing he struggles with the most is blocking baseballs.

“It’s the last piece of the puzzle for him,” Billmeyer said. “He’s been much better at blocking balls this year, as far as being there on time. But it’s something he has to stay on top of.”

Not that Billmeyer would ever let him slack. He rarely lets up on McCann. A couple of balls popped out of his glove on Saturday — balls that may have been called strikes if he caught them cleanly, and Billmeyer was on him.

“He was getting real loud with his glove,” Billmeyer said. “He was going to the ground with the glove and then back up. Plus, he’s moving late, his eyes are moving, the ball’s in flight and it makes it hard. You panic. He was giving it the Heisman Trophy stiff-arm, I call it.

“I’m watching from the bullpen and he’s trying to stick it with a stiff arm, instead of keeping the elbow soft and just catching it — you can be firm but soft.”

McCann fights one particularly bad habit behind the plate. On balls in the dirt, especially off-speed pitches, his instinct is to rise up slightly before dropping to his knees to block the ball. In that instant, either the ball gets by him or he is unable to get into position to block it softly and keep it in front of him.

“He had a bad day at home the other day,” Billmeyer said of the 11-5 loss to the Twins last week, where three runners advanced on wild pitches. “He was late. You’re out of position, so you panic and use your hands. You don’t get your stomach there.

“The biggest thing is, don’t use your glove. Try to use your body on everything and don’t glove it when it’s in the dirt. Guys want to pick it, that’s the natural instinct.”

The Tigers have seven wild pitches, all with McCann behind the plate. He’s also made three clutch blocks with a runner on third. But he admits, that part of the game will always be a work in progress.

“Everybody has stuff in this game that they’re constantly working on,” McCann said. “And that’s something for me. You go through stretches when it’s real good and you go through stretches when you are in a slump. Just like a hitter, you slump. There are parts of your game that will slump if you don’t stay on top of it.”

Manager Brad Ausmus, a three-time Gold Glove-winning catcher, said it’s simply a bad habit — similar to what hitters and pitchers can get into at times developing a hitch in their swing or flying open with their front shoulder.

“You get into a bad mechanical habit and, very simply, you fix it,” he said. “You get in the cage, just as you would as a hitter, and you fix it. He was fine for a while and then it reoccurred. It’s something he has to be aware of and monitor.”

It almost feels like nit-picking because McCann does so many things well defensively. Except, it just takes one poorly-blocked ball to potentially cost you a game. And nobody is more aware of it than McCann, which is why he puts in all the work.

“It’s not something I really worry about because when I feel it, I can fix it,” he said. “It’s not like I have to go back to the drawing board to figure it out. I know it’s something I battle with and it’s something I know how to fix.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/cmccosky

Tigers at Rays

Series: Three-game series at Tropicana Field

First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 1:10 p.m. Thursday

TV/radio: Tuesday-Thursday – FSD, 97.1

Probables: Tuesday – RHP Matt Andriese (0-0, 4.50) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (1-0, 2.25); Wednesday – RHP Chris Archer (2-0, 2.21) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 5.06); Thursday – TBD vs. LHP Daniel Norris (1-0, 2.19).

■ Andriese, Rays: He lasted just 10 total innings in three starts against the Tigers last season, allowing six runs. He’s primarily a fastball, cutter, curveball pitcher who has more success against left-handed hitters than righties. Righties hit 43 points higher than lefties off him last year.

■ Fulmer, Tigers: Everything seemed to click back into place for Fulmer in the final three innings against the Twins last Wednesday. He regained full command of his slider and change-up, and promptly dispatched the last 10 batters he faced, striking out five of them.