The lead was large and the plan was in place.
Terrin Vavra found out in the top of the seventh inning of an April 29 game in Charlotte that he’d switch from playing third base to catching for the first time as a professional. Take your at-bat, put on the gear and replace starter Maverick Handley with Triple-A Norfolk ahead 16-1.
In a weird coincidence, as so many of them are, Nicholas Padilla nailed Handley with a pitch, bruised the hand and forced him onto the seven-day injured list. Vavra was the next batter, and he doubled with the bases loaded to score two more runs as part of his five-hit day in a 20-1 win.
Vavra was going to catch anyway, but the change wasn’t supposed to be that painful. He handled the last three innings without incident – the Knights had three baserunners, each of them reaching with two outs and none inclined to steal with such a lopsided margin – and an emergency backstop was born.
The idea actually was hatched late in 2022, and the Orioles began working with him in spring training. But the game in Charlotte made it seem more real.
Vavra caught one more inning for the Tides before the Orioles recalled him Tuesday afternoon. He brought his mitt and the rest of his equipment, and the odds increased that he might use them with Luis Torrens designated for assignment on the same day.
“They kind of talked to me a little bit about it at the end of the year last year, so I had (a mitt) coming into spring and got it broken in with some help from the catchers here,” Vavra said. “Just kind of been rolling with it.”
The Orioles are set with Adley Rutschman and James McCann, but they traded for Torrens with Handley going on the IL and the club unable to keep a taxi squad catcher due to the sudden shortage in Norfolk. Vavra’s defensive flexibility already makes him an attractive bench player, and he was sent down largely because the Tigers started three left-handers in a row against them in Detroit. Joey Ortiz made more sense, based on matchups.
Vavra isn’t going to argue against doing anything that makes him more important to the Orioles and improves his chances of playing in the majors.
“Not only that, but it puts the decision-makers in a spot where they can be a little bit more aggressive in making a move in a game to help us win, knowing that they have somebody if an emergency situation were to present itself,” Vavra said.
“Ultimately, I think it helps my value, but it also helps to increase our chances of winning.”
Vavra did some catching in high school and summer ball in Wisconsin. He developed a working knowledge of the tools of ignorance before heading to the University of Minnesota.
“I would catch a fair amount,” he said. “You know how high school works. You’ve got to take turns, shuffle around to other positions. I probably played 10 to 15 games every year between the two. It was something I planned to do going into college. When Minnesota was recruiting me, they talked to me a little bit about it, and then my freshman year. I was playing in the infield and my coach told me that I was sticking in the infield, and probably let the catching thing go for the time being.
“Caught a couple bullpens in college for some of the pitchers that were staying on campus in the summer or close to fall ball and they didn’t have a guy to catch. I’ve always just kind of been keeping it in the back pocket a little bit.”
The Tides put it behind the plate, under circumstances that wouldn’t bring any duress.
“They told me, ‘Hey, this is a good situation for you to come in. Low stress, we’ve got these arms that are gonna throw that are pretty much around the plate,’” Vavra said.
The sharpening of those tools was done at the ETS Performance facility in Minnesota, where Vavra trains with Dodgers pitcher J.P. Feyereisen.
“It’s about 15 minutes from where J.P. lives and about 10 minutes from where I live. We work out together pretty much every day and play catch pretty much every day,” Vavra said.
“He needs a catch partner. Caught a few lives for him, a few bullpens for him. Keeps it a little fresh, so it’s not super foreign to me, but definitely an adjustment getting in there in a game. There’s nothing like that.”
The Orioles had Vavra crouch behind the plate in some simulated games on the back fields before breaking camp. That’s getting his feet wet. Catching for Norfolk is a plunge in the deep end.
“It definitely was different, just in the sense of it had been six weeks since I caught, even in those sim games,” Vavra said. “I hadn’t really put on the gear since. It was strange in that sense. But at the same point, in the situations in the games that I came in, it wasn’t anything too high-stress. I was just able to kind of go out there and just try to make the most of it and take each pitch where it was and just try to get a little more comfortable back there.”
Left-hander Drew Rom didn’t throw to Vavra, but he liked what he saw from the dugout.
“He’s raw, but he’s got a good enough glove wherever he plays,” Rom said. “I think it’s gonna play. I think that’s the biggest part, is calling a game and understanding players’ swings or understanding, even, a scouting report. It’s just a whole different thing. Going to Triple-A, I think it kind of sped up a little bit compared to what he was dealing with in spring training. But he took it in stride and did well.
“It was pretty fun just getting to watch him. He knew that we wouldn’t make fun of him too much. Too much. But he did really well. We were all really impressed.”
Vavra must block pitches and any thoughts about getting hit by a foul tip or a backswing.
“You can’t think about that,” he said. “Just got to try to catch the ball. Pitchers, luckily, at that level and here command their pitches pretty well. Their misses are a little bit smaller than, say, at the lower level. So, that’s an encouraging part and something that made me a little bit more comfortable.”
The resources are plentiful for Vavra to tap into for advice. The catchers in spring training and with Norfolk and the Orioles. Manager Brandon Hyde, bench coach Fredi González and major league field coordinator Tim Cossins played the position.
“Oh yeah, everybody,” Vavra said. “I’ve tried to pick their brains as much as I can and everyone’s pretty helpful with it. They know it’s a new thing, it’s something that I’m trying to embrace, and so between coaching staff, all the catchers in the organization, I’ve been very thankful to have those guys.
“A lot of people who know their stuff. Know about receiving, know about transfers, all that stuff. It’s been huge to have that.”
Hyde won’t fiddle with Vavra’s role unless there’s a burning need for it.
Asked for his level of confidence in catching Vavra, Hyde paused, repeated the question and asked, “Who’s pitching?”
“Bautista? Cano? Low if it’s Bautista,” he said with a laugh.
“No, it’s an emergency only right now. It’s if we have an unfortunate circumstance that happens in a game and we need him back there.”
Vavra will be ready. He’s got the mitt and the moxie.