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Greenville playing the Field(s)

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Greenville North State catcher Jacob Calder reaches out a glove during an at-bat by Sioux Falls, S.D., on Friday night at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

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BY RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Friday, August 25, 2017

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Using a left-handed catcher might get a professional baseball manager fired.

Putting a team’s biggest and most powerful hitter in the leadoff spot in the batting order? No chance.

Brian Fields is aware of these kind of unwritten rules in baseball — he played at the collegiate and professional levels in the late-1990s — but he also has bucked these traditions during a undefeated summer as Greenville North State’s coach and the team is set to play in the Little League World Series U.S. championship game Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on ABC. It gets a rematch with Texas on Saturday after Texas beat Connecticut 14-4 on Thursday night.

The Greenville club is 15-0 this summer. Little League rules require all players to play in every game, which could be put a strain on coaches if they are not willing to be open-minded like Fields.

North State has allowed one combined hit during its 3-0 start to the LLWS, which is testament to the team’s effective pitching setup and crisp defense.

“You just have to put your best athletes pretty much at your best positions,” Fields said earlier this week as he walked away from a batting practice session at the LLWS complex and broke down his managerial style for these games involving 12- and 13-year-olds. “Catcher is very important.”

Greenville’s two catchers are right-handed Bryce Jackson and lefty Jacob Calder, who at 5-foot-2 and 90 pounds resembles the stature of a scrappy infielder much more than a catcher. It is actually 6-1, 149-pounder Matthew Matthijs who typically starts at second base — and bats in the leadoff spot in the lineup in another surprising move to most outsiders — and comes in as a relief pitcher.

Left-handed catchers are viewed as a big no-no because it takes them longer to stand from the crouching position and turn their bodies to make the necessary throws, especially to third base. Also, it is more likely for a lefty catcher to get obstructed by or interfere with a right-handed batter.

“My dad was a catcher when he played and it’s just in my blood I guess,” Calder said. “I can play outfield, but I’m not the best outfielder. … I just want to stick with catcher for now.”

It’s not easy for Jackson or Calder to handle Matthijs’ fastball that comes to the plate at mid-70 miles per hour speeds. Matthijs struck out 11 straight batters Wednesday night to help Greenville edge Lufkin, Texas, 2-1 in seven innings to make the U.S. title game.

Greenville Tar Heel also made the U.S. championship in 1998, falling 5-2 to a Toms River, N.J., club led by now-New York Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier.

It is hard to predict which players — if any — from this Little League World Series will make the major leagues someday. Right now, they are at ages where their bodies are changing at different rates.

A left-handed catcher making it there would be a remarkable feat, but Fields said Calder is exactly where he needs to be at this point in his baseball career.

“Even though it is a harder throw for him a lot of times, especially to third base, at this level there is not much stealing (bases),” said Fields, adding that runners do move up a base on a wild pitch or passed ball, but rarely a conventional steal. “What Jacob brings is he is just 100 percent and just grit and hard work. He will put that little body in front of (the ball) and he is a little firecracker back there.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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