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Northwestern's Hyatt excels at hitting and catching

Several things separate Northwestern High catcher Chris Hyatt from other baseball players, but one sticks out.

When it comes time for Hyatt to step to the plate, it doesn't bother him a bit that his name has been written in at the bottom of the lineup card.

Ego? Won't find many players more laid back. Couldn't hit a beach ball with a tennis racket? Get outta here. Hyatt could probably hit a penny with a broom handle.

Is he satisfied with his place in the order? Wouldn't have it any other way. And not just because he started behind the plate last year but was replaced by a designated hitter because he had a hard time putting his bat on the ball.

That has changed. Hyatt leads the Trojans in batting average (.476) and on-base percentage (.667). He's second in hits (35) and RBIs (18). His 10 tie him for the team lead and those are his only extra-base hits.

Hyatt has struck out only seven times, but he has drawn 14 walks and scored 20 times in 73 at-bats. Not many athletes get named player of the year for defense only, so his improvement with a bat earned Hyatt the Region 3-AAAA Player of the Year award.

Numbers like his are usually attached to a leadoff hitter's name. Hyatt bats either seventh or eighth, depending if designated hitter Clay Bates is pitching that day. Cory Hyslop, Northwestern's junior varsity coach and varsity assistant, said there were discussions among the coaches about moving Hyatt to the top of the order, but it didn't happen.

Hyatt was moved to the middle of the order near midseason, but his hitting tailed off. So he was returned to the spot(s) where he's most comfortable.

"Where you bat in the order determines what kind of pitches you're going to get,'' Hyatt said. "One through six, you'll see a lot of junk. When we get to seven, eight and nine, teams think all their pitchers have to do is throw fastballs and strike batters out. I know that happens. I'm a catcher.

"I love fastballs, so batting where I do gives me a chance to see plenty. It's not that I can't hit other pitches, but down in the order you can count on getting mostly fastballs. As a catcher, I have to be aware of what we are going to throw in situations. That helps when I bat because I have a good idea what's coming next.''

It's not just where Hyatt is batting that has made him a better hitter. He replaced senior Justin Boylston at catcher last year, allowing Boylston to take on the designated hitter role. But like all players, Hyatt wanted his swings and decided it was up to him to get them.

Hyatt worked from the time the season ended last spring until practice started this year after Christmas. He played American Legion and travel baseball, but nearly every day he was at Northwestern hitting off batting tees and taking pitches in the batting cage.

The more he swung, the quicker his batting stroke improved. When the season started, Hyatt was in the lineup hitting for himself, but in the ninth spot.

His catching abilities earned Hyatt and grant-and-aid from Lander University in Greenwood. The plus is the Saints are getting some extra hitting in the deal.

"I came over (to Northwestern) during the off-season to cut grass and work on the field,'' Hyslop said. "It would be safe to say that every time I was here, so was Chris. He'd tee the ball high. He'd tee it low. He'd tee it high. When he could talk someone to come pitch to him, he spent time in the cage.

"Chris was my starting catcher on the JV team as a sophomore. He hit around .200, but I'm the kind of coach that in some spots, I'll take defense over offense any time. Now, because of the extra time he put in, we're getting both from Chris.''

There was never a question about his defense, which motivates the Trojans' pitchers. He allowed one passed ball last year and has had only one this season. He has only three errors in two seasons.

Another measure of a good catcher is his throwing time from home to second. Hyatt has been timed as low as 1.89 seconds. His average, Hyatt said, is 1.91, which discourages runners from attempted steals.

Senior Clay Bates, a starting pitcher and the DH when not on the mound, said he couldn't imagine anyone else being behind the plate. Hyatt gives Bates and the other Trojans' pitchers a comfort zone.

"Chris is a very good catcher and makes me look good,'' said Bates, of his senior battery mate. "He blocks every bad pitch ... nothing gets past him. Chris studies the other team's batters and knows what we should throw in certain situations.

"One of our coaches calls the pitches, but if Chris notices a batter's feet adjusting, he has permission to shake off the call for a different pitch. We play a conservative style and go for the out at the plate. It's the way to go with Chris catching.''

Hyatt has stopped pulling his mitt except on the closest of pitches. If the pitch is an obvious ball, he knows the umpire won't be fooled. But Hyatt said there are times he'll try to sneak one in. What catcher doesn't?

He sees a lot of the same umpires during the season and doesn't want to make them look bad or look bad to them when he tries to pull in a ball that's obviously out of the strike zone. And he refuses to talk trash to opposing batters.

"The umps know me, and I know how they call pitches,'' Hyatt said. "We had an ump the other night that told me not to frame the ball, that he knows the plate has corners and if crosses one he's going call it a strike.

"That's what a catcher likes, an umpire who is not going to give you cheap strikes but is going to call strikes when the ball is there. If it's a close pitch and it's a strike, it's going to be called. And it's good for us that we have pitchers who throw strikes.''