2011 Spirit Sports Year In Review

Story of the year: Mesoraco receives his dream call

PUNXSUTAWNEY — 2011 was a whirlwind year for former PAHS — and current Cincinnati Reds' — catcher Devin Mesoraco and his loyal, local fans and one during which his dream of playing in the Majors became a reality.

When Mesoraco hit an eighth-inning home run during the first week of spring training with the Cincinnati Reds March 2, manager Dusty Baker said that the slugger hit the ball a mile, maybe even a mile-and-a-half.

Mesoraco, a 2007 first-round draft pick of the Reds, was perceived to be a bust after hitting .240 with 18 home runs and 87 RBIs through 215 games and 755 at-bats during his first three minor league seasons. In 2010, he broke through, batting .302 with 26 home runs and 75 RBIs, as he advanced from Class A Lynchburg to Double-A Carolina before concluding the season at Triple-A Louisville.

The catcher used last year's success as a springboard for his third invitation to the Reds' Major League Spring Training camp. And this year, with his most spring at-bats and games played with the Reds, he stood out.

Mesoraco hit .455 in Spring Training, good enough for second-best on the team.

The only problem: Meso-raco was stuck on a staff deep at the catcher position behind Major League veterans Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan on the Reds' depth chart.

Mesoraco caught 41 percent of runners attempting to steal last year. He also had 13 passed balls. But his No. 1 priority in 2011 was creating a better relationship with the organization's pitchers.

"It's just a matter of me being more experienced behind the plate and working with the pitchers," he said. "Just as far as being able to control those guys and have them be comfortable with me behind the plate and me be comfortable with them."

Mesoraco performed well for the AAA Bats for the first few months of the season, but in July, he took center stage as one of the nation's top prospects selected to play in the MLB XM Futures All-Star game July 10 in Phoenix.

Mesoraco was granted the start at catcher for the U.S. team, which won 6-4.

He shined brightly in the game, going 1-for-1, scoring a run and being hit by a pitch during his second at-bat.

"It was great," Mesoraco said. "I think the Futures game is the premiere All-Star game in the Minor Leagues, so to get that kind of recognition was really good."

Mesoraco's performance prior to the game this season had definitely merited the All-Star selection. Playing for the Cincinnati Reds' AAA- affiliate Louisville Bats, Mesoraco was among the International League leaders in several categories this season, including doubles and slugging percentage before being called up.

Mesoraco saw the light at the end of the tunnel in the midst of the scramble for Major League clubs to make the playoffs, knowing he just needed to be patient with the roster expansion coming at the end of August.

Mesoraco wasn't frustrated about his situation, though. He knew his time was coming, and he was taking advantage of his time in AAA to further polish his game.

"I couldn't be any happier with the organization and the way things are going so far," he said. "I'll get my time, and I'm just working hard to be ready for whenever my number is called."

The news he and so many loyal fans had waited for finally came Aug. 31 when the Reds officially announced Mesoraco would be called up to the Major League club.

According to family sources, Mesoraco was in Louisville preparing for a game when he received news that he wouldn’t be playing for the Bats that night, and his first official game in a Reds' uniform would be Cincinnati’s Sept. 1 12:30 p.m. con-test against the Philadelphia Phillies in Cincinnati.

Mesoraco’s journey to the Majors started June 1, 2007, when he was drafted in the first round with the 15th pick of the Major League Draft by the Cincinnati Reds, and with the end of one journey, a new journey had begun.

Mesoraco was thrilled to get the big call, though he admitted there was no actual call involved.

“When I got to the field, they kind of let me know, then,” he said. “The manager kind of pulled everybody aside and told us individually.”

Mesoraco said that although he had to wait until the afternoon of Aug. 31 to get the official word, he had been given a hunch that he might get the call, so he was prepared.

“I had a pretty good idea,” he said. “My manager had pulled me aside earlier in the week and given me a pretty good indication, so I had all my stuff packed and ready to go.”

Reds’ manager Dusty Baker said from the start that Mesoraco wasn’t expected to play immediately, distilling the rumors that he might appear in his first game as Reds’ catcher.

“The first couple of days, he will catch some bullpens, because there are some guys he hasn’t caught,” Baker said. “And there are some he has caught, but not for a long time. So, he’ll be in the bullpen learning ... Right now, we’re going to let him get acclimated to the way we do things. You have to learn the personnel and go over the scouting reports.”

Mesoraco, who had been quietly and humbly awaiting his turn in the Majors, remained humble about the opportunity to learn at that level, too.

“I don’t see it as a pressure situation,” he said. “I’m coming up to learn and learn from two good catchers in Hernandez and Hanigan. I’m just going to go up and do everything I can to better my game and, hopefully, improve on it for the future.”

Mesoraco may not have been in the lineup during his first MLB game, but he did take the field in a different context, warming up the pitcher between innings on one occasion while Hanigan dressed.

After several weeks that seemed a blur, including Mesoraco's first hit Sept. 3 in his Major League debut as a pinch-hitter and his first home run Sept. 12, Mesoraco made a trip many of his local fans had been looking forward to for years — his first to Pittsburgh to play the Pirates.

“I don’t know how many people are going,” Mesoraco's mother Laura said before the game. “I just know there’s a ton going. There’s going to be a lot of red at PNC Park.”

The Wednesday before the weekend series, Devin's father, Doug, and Laura found themselves parked at Rich Kuntz Memorial Field, where Devin played Legion ball for so many years, selling “Mez” T-shirts for local fans to show their Mesoraco pride.

The shirts, produced by Standard Pennant, were Cincinnati red with “Mez,” a picture of Devin making a throw on the front and Mesoraco’s name and number on the back.

“‘Mez' is what the big league people call him,” Laura said. “The teammates calls him ‘Mez.’ When he was in the Gulf Coast League, they started calling him that, and it just kind of stuck.”

Mesoraco had a weekend full of baseball for the Cincinnati Reds Sept. 24 and Sept. 25, playing in a pair of victories against the Pirates.

Mesoraco struggled in Sept. 24's game, going 0-for-4 at the plate and being struck out once.

Sept. 25, Mesoraco had a more successful game as he reached base twice with one hit and scored two runs.

Mesoraco first reached base when he was called safe at second after an error by Pirates' third baseman Josh Harrison.

His first run in Pittsburgh came minutes later when he was driven in by Brandon Phillips.

In the top of the sixth, Mesoraco had his lone hit of the game — a single to center field.

He was then driven in by Dontrelle Willis.

Mesoraco finished the season with nine hits, including three doubles and a pair of home runs, and a .973 fielding percentage.

The way Mesoraco played at the end of this season, combined with the fact that Hernandez signed an off- season contract with the Colorado Rockies, means his future looks bright in Cincinnati.

Oh, what a difference a year can make.