Braves catcher Recker making most of opportunity

MILWAUKEE – Anthony Vito Recker will turn 33 at the end of this month. But the muscular catcher looks younger and doesn't sound like someone who's worn down from the frustrations of shuttling between the minors and majors for a few years and then being viewed strictly as a big-league backup for a couple more.

No, he sounds like a guy whose optimism and excitement have been rekindled by a chance he’s gotten to split the catching duties evenly during the past 3 ½ weeks with the Braves, and the career opportunities that could possibly unfold now as a result of his taking advantage of an opportunity.

“Absolutely,” said Recker, who had a hit and two walks in three plate appearances in Tuesday’s 2-1 win against the Brewers and is 8-for-16 with three doubles and four RBIs in five starts over the Braves’ past 10 games while splitting catching duties with A.J. Pierzynski. “This is the first chance I’ve had in the big leagues to play on any kind of a consistent basis. So I look at it as an opportunity to prove that not only do I belong here, but I think I can be a starter here and I can be an asset to an organization.

“You have to look at it that way. It’s just an opportunity that I’ve never had before -- and being 32, I may not get again. So I really do want to take advantage of it, and be very thankful for the opportunity.”

While Tyler Flowers has been on the disabled list with a broken hand, Recker has started 11 of the Braves’ past 22 games, played in two other games – he got a hit in his only at-bat in each of those including his lone pinch-hit appearance – and is batting .389 (14-for-36) with five doubles, six RBIs, six walks and a .477 OBP and .528 slugging percentage. He also has two sacrifice bunts and a sacrifice fly.

Behind the plate, Recker has displayed a strong arm and solid overall defensive skills while drawing praise for his work with pitchers, particularly some of the Braves’ young pitchers. A Pennsylvania native, born in Allentown and graduated from Catasauqua (Pa.) High School, Recker is a former 18th-round draft pick who has worked hard and appreciates the difficult path that up-and-coming pitchers must navigate.

“He did an amazing job keeping me calm and collected,” rookie starting pitcher Rob Whalen said after Recker caught his major league debut, which Whalen won after giving up four runs in his first inning and no more runs after that. “He told me to keep battling and that we were going to get the lead and win the game for me. He predicted it and it came true.”

Rookie Ryan Weber, who first teamed with Recker at Gwinnett, said of the 6-foot-2, 240-pound catcher: “Real comfortable to throw to, I like his target. Big body, but, like, a small glove area to throw to, which I really like. Kind of like A.J. and Flow (Flowers), actually. That big body but that small glove.

“Just looking in, it looks like they’re covering the whole plate, so if you bounce one or whatever you know they’re still going to block it. But they give you that good, small (glove) target at the same time.”

Weber added, “He’s probably the biggest guy I’ve ever played with.”

Indeed, Recker looks a bit more like an NFL middle linebacker than a catcher. But he moves well behind the plate and has shown his athleticism on a few recent plays, particularly his ability to pounce on dribbling ground balls in front of the plate and fire accurate throws to first base.

“He and A.J. have been splitting things up and doing a good job, both of them,” Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said. “A.J. hit a home run (Monday); I think both of them are doing a great job with that pitching staff. It goes without saying that they’re both – you always see them cheering them on and talking to them. They’re a big part of what we’re doing with the pitching because the guys are trusting them.”

Recker has always been an accomplished hitter at the minor league level, with a .274/.361/.481 slash in 1,428 plate appearances. But that hitting production hasn’t been replicated at the big-league level before now.

Before his current stint with the Braves, Recker had a .185 career major league average with 16 homers, 55 RBIs and a .260 OBP and .334 slugging percentage in 455 at-bats spread over parts of five seasons with the A’s, Cubs and Mets. He spent the first month of this season with the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate.

He played full seasons with the Mets in 2013-2014 but was viewed (and used) as a typical backup catcher, playing once or twice a week and totaling 309 plate appearances in that two-year span – the most he’s ever played -- with 77 starts behind the plate.

When Travis d’Arnaud got hurt in 2015 the Mets went with the younger Kevin Plawecki as the regular fill-in and Recker spent part of the season in Triple-A when he wasn’t gathering dust on the Mets bench.

“The first year (with the Mets), John Buck was the starter for the majority of the year, and then the past two years Travis was mostly the starter,” Recker said. “When he would go down with an injury, unfortunately, they seemed to have another guy that they wanted to play, whether it be Plawecki or (Taylor) Teagarden. So, like I said, I never really had an opportunity to play every day or even on any kind of a consistent basis. So it’s just an opportunity that I can’t let pass….

“For my entire career -- getting called up with Oakland in 2011, (Kurt) Suzuki was the every-day guy. Even going to Chicago for a month in 2012, Wellington Castillo was the guy, you know? I just never had the opportunity to play consistently up here. Obviously when you get a chance to play consistently you have a better chance of getting into a rhythm and being able to put together more productive at-bats on a more consistent basis.”

So what happens when Flowers returns from the DL, which could be next week? Snitker said he didn’t know and mentioned the possibility of the Braves going with three catchers until rosters can be expanded in September.

Recker is not out of minor league options, so he could be sent down until rosters are expanded. But then, he’s played so well and worked so well with pitchers, the Braves might not want to potentially disrupt a good thing.

The 39-year-old Pierzynski, batting .215 with two homers and a career-worst .530 OPS in 237 plate appearances, is expected to retire after the season, but it’s unclear if the Braves would consider moving him aside before then, given his status and good working relationship with pitchers.

As for Recker, all he can do is keep making the most of his chances. He’s trying to show a team – the Braves or any other team – that he belongs in the big leagues and can produce when given an opportunity to play.

“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

• Wednesday's matchup: The Braves, with a four-game winning streak and 10 wins in their past 14 games, will turn to winless rookie Joel De La Cruz (0-4, 3.41 ERA) making his fifth start and 12th appearance. He'll face Brewers right-hander Chase Anderson (6-10, 5.01).

De La Cruz is 0-3 with a 3.32 ERA in four starts, allowing 21 hits, 11 runs (eight earned), three homers and eight walks with seven strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings.

In his past four appearances (two starts), the stocky right-hander has a 0.75 ERA and .125 opponents’ average. He’s allowed five hits, one run and seven walks with five strikeouts in 12 innings over that span going back to July 24, including consecutive perfect relief appearances totaling 3 1/3 innings prior to his July 31 return to the rotation.

In two starts since returning to the rotation, De La Cruz gave up three hits and two walks in 4 1/3 scoreless innings for no decision in a July 31 against the Phillies, and two hits, one run and five walks in 5 1/3 innings of a Friday loss at St. Louis in the first game of the current trip.

Anderson has allowed a .329 average (77-for-234) by right-handed batters with 37 extra-base hits (14 home runs), a .392 OBP and .615 slugging percentage, compared to a .186 average (33-for-177) by lefty batters with 15 extra-base hits (six homers), a .262 OBP and .350 slugging percentage.

Anderson is 2-4 with a 6.35 ERA in his past nine starts, allowing 48 hits, seven homers and 24 walks with 34 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings. He has not allowed more than three runs in any of last six starts, but lasted five or fewer innings in five of those and six innings in the other.

His only start against the Braves was a win in June 2014. Matt Kemp is 6-for-14 with two homers against him, Jeff Francoeur is 2-for-3 and Freddie Freeman is 1-for-3. No other Brave has a hit or more than three official at-bats against the righty.

• Let's close with this one from Milwaukee's own Violent Femmes.

"GONE, DADDY, GONE" by Violent Femmes

Beautiful girl, lovely dress

High school smiles, oh yes

Beautiful girl, lovely dress

Where she is now I can only guess

'Cause it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone away

When I see you, eyes will turn blue

When I see you, thousand eyes turnin' blue

'Cause it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone away

Tell by the way that you switch and walk

I can see by the way that you baby-talk

I can know by the way you treat your man

I can love you, baby, 'til it's a-cryin...

'Cause it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone

Yeah, it's gone, daddy, gone -- your love is gone away

Beautiful girl, lovely dress

Fifteen smiles, oh, yes

Beautiful girl, lovely dress

Where she is now, I can only guess 'cause it's...