READING, Pa. — It was a foul tip that caught the catcher directly on the helmet, just like the dozens guys like Tommy Joseph take every game.
Even for Joseph this one, which occurred two Fridays ago at New Hampshire, was seemingly ordinary. He remembers exactly which foul ball clanked off his helmet and certainly remembers staying in the game and slugging a three-run homer for his fourth blast of the season.
But later on, something didn’t seem quite right. Joseph said he felt a little dizzy and had a headache. It “rattled” Joseph and made him think about last year. Maybe it was a concussion, or then again, maybe not. Perhaps Joseph was being hypersensitive.
Or maybe just vigilant.
“It sucks because you don’t want to deal with anything like this,” Joseph said this past Friday, when the Reading Phils lost to Harrisburg. “But I have to worry about it and it’s going to be a part of me as a ballplayer.”
And why not? Joseph, 22, the promising catching prospect at Double A Reading, saw his ascent to the majors take a bit of a detour last season. A foul tip off the mask during a game last May 4 forced Joseph out of the lineup for a month with a concussion. He was activated and went to Single A Clearwater to get back into shape but lasted just five games before post-concussion symptoms put him back on the shelf.
Joseph joined Double A Reading in mid July, played three games, and then was shut down for the rest of the season when he couldn’t shake his post-concussion symptoms.
A season that began with Joseph at Triple A and knocking on the door as the heir apparent to Carlos Ruiz was over before the All-Star break and left the 21-year-old catcher wondering if he was destined to play a different position.
“At the beginning of last year, jumping to Triple A, it took a little time to get used to it, and I didn’t get an opportunity to get used to it because I got hurt,” Joseph said. “The rest of the season was tough. I was dealing with a lot of stuff with the concussions and I was never able to get comfortable.”
Give Joseph credit for having a positive attitude. He also is relieved the latest foul tip he took off his mask didn’t result in a concussion. A trip to Pittsburgh to visit concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins revealed that the catcher is of sound mind and body, and after passing the MLB concussion protocol tests, Joseph was back behind the plate for Reading.
Manager Dusty Wathan was happy to get him back. Without Joseph in the lineup, the Fightin’ Phils went 1-5 and scored just 17 runs. Since his return on Saturday night, Reading won two straight and allowed just one run as Joseph quickly regained his hitting stroke. In Saturday’s game he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. But in Sunday’s victory Joseph went 4 for 5 with a triple, home run and three RBIs.
Amazingly, Joseph is batting .355 with three homers with runners on base. His five homers and 18 RBIs in 17 games lead the team.
“I’ve been able to get comfortable [at the plate],” Joseph said. “I’ve been able to take care of my self and keep it simple. I don’t try to overwork on stuff or think too much — I just try to keep it simple.”
Still, even though Joseph is regarded as an above-average hitter for a catcher (and perhaps not quite a strong enough hitter at first base), defense could be his forte. After all, the opposition scored 38 runs in the six games Joseph missed and had just eight hits and two runs in his two games back.
Wathan, a catcher in his 14 pro seasons, likes the way Joseph receives pitches and sees a lot of potential for calling games.
“He’s probably average right now, but he’s getting better and he works at it,” Wathan said of Joseph’s ability to handle a pitching staff. “We talk to him all the time, we go over video and he’s getting better as he goes.”
Wathan said mastery of the nuances of the game is typically the last part catchers add to their repertoire.
“It’s not easy and it’s why you don’t see too many 21-year-old catchers in the big leagues,” Wathan said. “It’s difficult to do unless you have a veteran pitching staff and they can help you progress.”
In the meantime, Joseph appears to be picking up where he left off at the end of the 2012 season. Sometimes even the fast track takes the scenic route.