The Braves didn’t expect to rely on young catchers Alex Jackson and William Contreras so soon.
Veterans Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers didn’t travel to New York after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Down two backstops, the Braves turned to the other pair on their 40-man roster in Jackson and Contreras, who had a combined four games of MLB experience.
Jackson started opening day, going 0-for-2 but drawing praise for how he managed starter Mike Soroka. Contreras replaced him in the eighth, catching a scoreless inning from reliever Shane Greene.
Teammates were aware that both regular catchers were ill in recent days, which meant Jackson knew he could serve the next-man-up role Friday. He was preparing in case they wouldn’t be available, and sure enough, he wound up the Braves’ starting catcher.
“I heard from both (d’Arnaud and Flowers before the game) actually,” Jackson said. “They were awesome, extremely supportive. They let me know, ‘Hey, you’ve been here. You’ve done this before. It’s the same exact thing, go out there, have fun and enjoy yourself.’ I talked to guys in the clubhouse as well. It’s all the same message: It’s your job. You know how to do your job. Go out there and have fun and be there for the pitcher.”
While neither d’Arnaud nor Flowers has tested positive, manager Brian Snitker said both were still feeling sick on Saturday morning. For the foreseeable future – which is unpredictable due to the uncertainty surrounding the situation – Jackson and Contreras will hold fort.
Jackson started again Saturday. It was his sixth career game after appearing in four last season. Jackson invoked the “deer in the headlights” cliché when discussing last year’s experience, saying he felt much more prepared this time around.
“I liked Alex last year when he came up,” Snitker said. “I really like his catching. I think he’s done a really good job. I know (catching coach) Sal (Fasano) is in his pocket every day with the defensive work and where he’s come. I feel good with him behind the plate. Last year, I thought he did a really good job in the brief time he was here.
“He was swinging the bat pretty well in camp. Yesterday notwithstanding – when you face the best pitcher on the planet (Jacob deGrom), it’s hard to judge offense. He’s got a quick release. He’s got arm strength. He does a good job with the game plan, receiving, the whole thing. He’s been very impressive behind the plate.”
A former first-round pick, Jackson is a catcher-turned-outfielder-turned-catcher. When the Braves acquired him from Seattle in 2016, they shifted him back to catcher permanently. He’s been developing in their system since, gaining valuable tutelage from Fasano and big leaguers Flowers, d’Arnaud, Brian McCann and Kurt Suzuki during spring trainings.
“It’s been a long road,” Jackson said. “A lot of work, a lot of preparation, a lot of mental preparation as well. But I’m extremely happy with what I’ve been able to do. A lot of that is thanks to guys like Sal, Tyler, Brian, Kurt, they really helped me and gave me the tools to allow me to better my game.”
Most importantly, Jackson has grown as a game manager, stressing the importance of communication: “Trying to let the pitchers know that I’ve done everything I can to put them in a situation where they can succeed. I’m trying to earn their trust, having those conversations. Maybe at times being a little harder, saying things they might not like to hear, just so they know it’s not saying it just to say it. Rather, I’ve done my research, put in the work, the time, to allow them to succeed.”
Contreras will likely make his first start Sunday night, catching Sean Newcomb in the series finale against the Mets. It would be his first major-league start.
A top-10 prospect in the system, Contreras is following in his brother’s footsteps. Willson, a two-time All-Star and World Series champion with the Chicago Cubs, had tweeted out his congratulations before Friday’s game, applauding his brother for making the Braves’ opening-day roster.
Willson said of his sibling: “I think he can be better than me,” per MLB.com Cubs writer Jordan Bastian. High praise from one Contreras to another.
“I just see physically, mentally, he’s growing up, he’s maturing,” Snitker said. “He came to camp, we brought him into our camp in the summer and it looked like he’d done some work with his swing. He’s a very tooled kid. This is a great experience for him. We didn’t think we’d be rushing him into action. He’s another one that it’s a shame there’s not a minor-league season for a kid like this to play. With the skill set he has, he could be an impactful player here at the major-league level.
“We’re going to get a look at him soon. I thought he did a good job with the one inning we put him back there (Friday). He’s growing, he’s getting better.”