Baseball: Ospreys catcher catches on in batter’s box

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Tim Panetta has been hitting well for North Fork. Through Monday’s games, he led the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League with a .753 slugging percentage.

Everyone used to be a shortstop, or a pitcher.

That’s the inside joke on the North Fork Ospreys, and for good reason. Not surprisingly, the best athletes on Little League teams usually play shortstop or pitcher. By the time they advance to the collegiate level, though, many of them branch out to different positions, like Tim Panetta did.

Panetta, the Ospreys catcher, is a relative latecomer to the position. Seeing more of a future for himself as a catcher, he made the move from shortstop to catcher as a freshman at Fox Lane High School in Mount Kisco in Westchester County. In retrospect, Panetta figures he saved some wear and tear on his knees by not having committed himself to catching earlier.

Catching isn’t easy. Ospreys coach Bill Ianniciello described playing the position as “grueling.” For good reason, too. Catchers routinely get beat up by foul balls, take shots to the head occasionally from back swings, and are sometimes involved in home-plate collisions. It’s hazardous work, but it’s all part of the position, and one reason why catchers aren’t expected to produce much offense.

Well, apparently no one told that to Panetta, whose bat work this summer has been exceptional. Through 30 games (21 of which he played and started), Panetta had a .377 batting average, a team-leading seven home runs and was tied with Anthony Aceto and Ryan Solberg for the team lead in runs batted in with 20.

“No complaints,” Panetta said. “No complaints.”

What’s to complain about?

In statistics through Monday’s games, Panetta led the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League with a .753 slugging percentage and was tied for fifth with six other players among the league’s home-run leaders.

Not only has Panetta been hitting for average, but he’s been hitting for power. Plus, defensively, he had a .995 fielding percentage and one error.

“He’s been a big lift to the team,” Ianniciello said. “He’s been one of the kids who got added late to the roster, and he’s been a huge plus.”

What has been Panetta’s secret?

“The transition from metal to wood, it’s a little difficult, but the power is just getting solid contact, and I guess the balls are just traveling, which is good,” he said. “I’m not trying to hit for power or average. I’m just trying to shorten my swing, put the ball in play whenever I can, and if I get a hit, I get a hit. If not,” so be it.

The 6-foot, 200-pound Panetta joined the Ospreys after a successful season at SUNY/Cortland where he hit .327 with no home runs and 20 RBI. But there is a difference going from the metal bats he used in college to the wood bats of the ACBL, where cheap hits aren’t easy to come by and contact with the meat of the bat is more critical. Panetta had experience taking cuts with wood last summer when he played for the Sanford Mainers in Maine in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. He faced difficulty, hitting .188 with one home run and eight RBI, striking out 27 times in 69 at-bats. Panetta said he didn’t know what to expect when he joined the Ospreys.

“The New England Collegiate Baseball League is very tough,” he said. “You know, I struggled a little bit. They have some deep fields and some good pitching, so I didn’t know what this league was going to be like. There’s still a ton of great pitchers that you’ll see. They’ll get us more than half of the time.”

Ianniciello said he knew he was getting a good hitter in Panetta. The coach has been able to keep Panetta’s bat in the lineup on days when Mark Brennan catches by making Panetta the designated hitter.

“A lot of coaches say if you can hit with wood, you can hit with metal,” Panetta said, “so at least from a confidence standpoint, it’s given me a good starting point for next fall and a good, strong positive feeling.”

Panetta, who transferred to SUNY/Cortland from Connecticut, where he had red-shirted, will be a senior academically this fall, but he has two years of college baseball eligibility left. Like many others, he has a dream of one day playing professionally.

For all of the big numbers he has been putting up this summer, Panetta said he is best at receiving and blocking pitches. Defense remains a priority for him. “Everyone needs a defensive catcher,” he said. “If you can hit, it’s a bonus.”

For all the aches and pains that come with the position, Panetta said he never second-guesses his switch to catcher.

“I made the move and I stuck with it through the ups and downs,” he said. “It turned out to be a good decision.”

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