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Barnhart: The ‘Little’ catcher that could

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Reds media guide lists Tucker Barnhart as 5-foot-11 and while nobody questions that anybody is stretching the truth, well, Barnhart might be 5-foot-11 if he stands on his shin guards, chest protector and mask.

In fact, the real question is, “Hey, kid, are you big enough to be a catcher? Don’t catchers have to be as tall as the wooden figures at an amusement park roller coaster that determines whether you can ride or not?”

Barnhart smiles at the question about his height and said, “My first interview when I was playing at Class A Dayton, the first question a reporter asked me was, ‘Are you too small to play this game.’ I heard it a lot and for me it is something that always drove me to play with a chip on my shoulders. And it has helped a lot. It is something that continues to drive me.”

ALL THROUGH HIS minor-league career the 24-year-old Indianapolis native has been known for his defensive prowess, his handling of pitchers, his arm, his ability to block pitches in the dirt. In fact, after the 2014 season he received the Rawliings Gold Glove for being the best defensive catcher in all of the minor leagues.

Now, with catcher Devin Mesoraco lost for the season, Barnhart is sharing catching duties with Brayan Pena and is using the bat for something more than knocking mud out of his cleats. He is hitting .308 and after getting four hits Monday night he is on a five-game hitting streak (12-20, .600).

It is no accident. Barnhart wants to shed the old good-catch, no-hit label.

“I went into the off-season with the goal of being a guy who isn’t just known as a defensive catcher,” he said. “I wanted to come back and get to a point where I could produce at a good level and drive in some runs and help the team win with the bat.”

NOBODY IS MORE appreciative of what Barnhart is doing than manager Bryan Price.

“He has done a great job and what is standing out is the way right now he is swinging the bat,” said Price. “He is hitting .344 left handed and got a nice base hit right handed on Monday back up the middle. He hit some pull homers early, but now he is staying in the middle of the field.

“What a nice complement to a kid who is really a nice defensive player and has always been heralded as a defender — a minor league Gold Glove winner, a great catch-and-throw guy, a catcher pitchers love to throw to. All of a sudden here comes the offense and it is funny because I’m sure this is the nicest stretch of offense he has had in his career and it is happening in the big leagues.”

BARNHART PLAYED SOME middle infield as a youth, where smaller guys gravitate, but his father was a catcher so it was a family thing.

“I like being in the middle of the action,” he said. “I felt like if I could sign or play in college that would be the route I needed to go and it has worked out so far.”

Somebody was kidding him about two pitches that nearly got over his head Monday, 101 miles an hour fastballs thrown by Aroldis Chapman. Barnhart leaped and snagged both.

“With Chapman, if you hesitate you are not going to get it,” said Barnhart. “I was watching video of those two pitches I caught last night and I had to laugh because I saw a guy sitting in the front row of the Diamond Seats ducking on both of those pitches.”

WITH BRANDON PHILLIPS out of the lineup, Billy Hamilton is back in the leadoff spot, but maybe not yet permanently, even though he was on base four times Monday with an infield hit, a bunt hit, two walks and four stolen bases.

That was great. But Hamilton has to do it consistently and he hasn’t shown that yet.

“If he can do what he did Monday on a regular basis he’ll be back in the leadoff spot,” said Price. “That would be great. The great importance of that role is that the leadoff hitter is going to get the most at-bats and he needs to get on base.

“You see what Billy does when he gets on base,” Price added. “But he is still learning how to hit from the left side. But you’ll notice he is bunting more and being more successful with his bunting. And the more he puts the ball on the ground the more chances he has to get on base. I believe that’s the role he will fill for this team but it has to come on a more consistent basis before he returns to full-time leadoff.”

THE REDS HAD a 9-1 lead over the Minnesota Twins, then it was 9-7 and finally the Reds won, 11-7. Guess which of those 11 runs the Reds scored that manager Bryan Price considers the most important.

It was when the Reds led 9-7 and Eugenio Suarez put down a safety squeeze bunt to make it 10-7.

“That situation was so important because it was 9-1 and then it was 9-7 and we stopped scoring,” said Price. “Their bullpen started to really shut us down. That add-on run was the most important run in that ballgame, that 10th run. It’s not easy. You have to find a way to get the bat on the ball and get it on the ground or it is a double play. He has done it twice and executed it perfectly both times on not real easy pitches to bunt.”

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