When it comes to baseball, Austin Allen — like most of his Tri-City Dust Devils teammates — has been around the game a long time.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound catcher has been playing since the second grade, and he’s just starting to realize his dream of playing professional baseball.
“It’s everything I thought it would be,” said Allen, a fourth-round pick by the San Diego Padres out of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla. “I’m not where I want to be yet, to get to the big leagues. It’s a long, hard journey.”
It’s no surprise the Padres liked what they saw. Allen hit .421 with 11 home runs, 57 RBIs and 52 runs scored in his junior season and set a school record with 25 doubles. He was named to the NCAA South Region All-tournament team and an ABCA/Rawlings second-team All-American.
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But he’s still coming into his own as a catcher, which he began learning as a high school freshman.
He plays perhaps most difficult position on the field. On defense, he has to have full command of the field, communicating with his infielders to make sure everybody is on the same page. He’s involved in virtually every single play, whether backing up another position or actively taking (or making) a throw.
But a catcher especially has to be in tune with the pitching staff, a job Allen has definitely taken to heart.
“I try to talk to each (pitcher) every day, even if it’s just, ‘Hi, how are you?’ ” Allen said. “That’s building a foundation for both of our success. I want him to feel comfortable throwing a 3-2 pitch in the ninth, and I want him to know he can be confident in a pitch I call. And if he throws a breaking ball in the dirt, I’m going to block it.”
If the numbers are any indication, Allen appears to be giving his pitchers a strong sense of security behind the plate. Not only has Tri-City won six of the last seven games Allen has caught, but the Dust Devils have given up just 27 wild pitches in 28 games — third fewest in the Northwest League.
Still, other numbers indicate room for growth. Wouldbe base stealers have run freely against Allen, who has gunned down just three of 34 runners this season.
“He was an offense-first kid out of college, so catching was his weak spot,” Tri-City manager Anthony Contreras said. “He’s very receptive to try to get better at technique and the fundamentals of catching.
“He’s learning how to catch on an every day basis. In college, you’ll play Friday, Saturday, Sunday and get four days to rest. Here you might go three or four days with one day off and then jump back in there.”
Offensively, Allen has begun to establish himself as one of the team’s most productive hitters, with a.292 average and eight RBIs over his last six games. He is tied for second on the Dust Devils and among NWL catchers with 13 RBIs.
His three-run double was the centerpiece of Tri-City’s 10-run second-inning explosion during a 12-3 win over Eugene on July 10. On Wednesday, Allen hit another bases-clearing double, driving in three more runs in an 8-4 win at Spokane.
Allen’s attitude and work ethic has set a solid example, and Tri-City has started to emerge as a contender for the North Division championship. Allen credits his father, Mike Allen, for helping teach him the value of a team-first approach.
“He always tried to instill it in me to be the hardest worker I can possibly be and to give it my all every single time,” Allen said. “Whether the results are good or bad, I know I gave it my all, and I will have no regrets.”
Allen is looking forward to his continued growth behind the plate and contributing as much as he can offensively. He suspects there are some who don’t believe he will remain behind the plate, but he is determined to make as much of his opportunity as he can.
One thing’s for sure. It won’t be for lack of trying.
“I still have a lot to learn. We’ve been working every single day since I’ve been here. I already feel like I’m improving, but I’ve got a lot more room to grow,” Allen said. “Working with every pitcher is a different challenge. It’s fun being able to try to make them the best they can become.”