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Catching a dream: GSU's Chase Griffin seizes opportunity
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Georgia Southern catcher Chase Griffin tags out Samford's Zeth Stone at home for an out in the fourth inning Saturday at J.I. Clements Stadium. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    Georgia Southern freshman catcher Chase Griffin grew up playing shortstop. He was a shortstop, third baseman and outfielder at Lee County High School in Leesburg before taking up catching midway through his junior season.
    Griffin earned all-area honors as a junior after hitting .444 with four home runs and 36 runs batted in.
    Lee County High School’s single-season records for batting average and home runs are held by another catcher — Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants catcher and former Florida State University star. Posey hit .544 for the Trojans in 2004 and hit 14 homers in 2005.
    Griffin said he signed with GSU as a utility player but he primarily practiced as a catcher last fall because the Eagles had a void at the position. The 6-foot, 190-pound Albany native figured it was his best opportunity to earn playing time.
    Griffin believes he has found his calling behind home plate.
    “As I do it more and more, I’m loving it back there,” he said. “You’re in every play. It keeps you into the game a lot. If it’s my ticket to get to the major leagues then I’m definitely going to stick with it.”
    GSU (26-23 overall, 12-12 Southern Conference) will play a three-game SoCon series against Western Carolina (29-18, 13-11) starting at 6 p.m. today at J.I. Clements Stadium. The teams will play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. It will be the Eagles’ final home stand this season.
    Griffin has started in 39 of the 44 games in which he has played. He has hit a team-high 10 home runs and is the first GSU freshman to hit 10 homers since Steve Walson did it in 1996. Griffin hit nine homers during a 20-game stretch from March 17 through April 15. His 10 home runs are twice as many as the next-closest Eagle, Casey Kicklighter, who has five homers.
    “He’s got a quick bat,” GSU head coach Rodney Hennon said. “That’s something that you can’t teach, is bat speed, and he has that. I think he’s learning to make adjustments better as a hitter. I think that’s something that early in the year he was still kind of feeling his way around a little bit. I think as he’s gotten some confidence that’s improved.
    Griffin leads GSU in strikeouts with 40, but he is working to improve in that statistical category.
    “To start off (the season), I was a little cold with my bat,” Griffin said. “My swing was a little off, and I got the coaches to work with me there. I finally figured a few things out, like pitch selection, and just not chasing bad pitches, and whenever my pitch comes in, the one I can hit, I jump on it.”
    Griffin loves to see belt-high fastballs approaching.
    In March, Griffin was the nation’s leading freshman with eight home runs in a 12-day stretch.
    “A lot of it is just mental whenever you step into the box,” he said. “After I got a few hits, I got a lot of confidence. I know I can play with all these guys out here. It’s just a matter of getting my pitch and hitting it hard.
    “I’m not near as hot as I was about a month ago, but I’m still stinging a few balls here and there.”
    Griffin, who has 47 hits, is second in batting average (.311 in 151 at-bats) behind senior infielder Eric Phillips (.396 in 192 at-bats), second in slugging percentage (.556) behind Phillips (.563) and second in RBIs (31) behind Phillips (49).
    Defensively, Griffin has 10 passed balls and has allowed 76 stolen bases. He has caught runners attempting to steal 13 times. That’s another area the right-hander is working to improve upon.
    “Hitting is my favorite thing to do. I love hitting,” he said. “Fielding is coming around for me, too. I’ve gotten a whole lot better than I was at catching. I’m still real young at that position and I’m learning a lot back there and getting a whole lot better.”
    GSU's Hennon said Griffin is showing progress and has tremendous potential.
    “Defensively, I think he’s made a lot of strides,” Hennon said. “He’s still got a lot of work to go there but he has improved tremendously since the start of the season, and I think he’s done a good job of being able to separate his offense and his defense. Sometimes that’s tough for a young player. If you’re struggling with the bat, sometimes you can carry that into your defense a little bit. And that might have affected him a little bit early in the season but, again, I think that’s a sign of his maturity as the season has played out.
    “He really, as a catcher, has not caught an awful lot over the years. Just a couple of years before he got here. So he’s got a high ceiling, I think, at that position.”
    Griffin does not call the pitches. GSU assistant B.J. Green signals them to Griffin behind home plate, and Griffin relays them to the pitcher. Griffin started at catcher in the Eagles’ season opener Feb. 17 against UT Martin at J.I. Clements Stadium. GSU’s starting pitcher was junior Chris Beck, a consensus preseason All-American.
    “It was pretty nerve-wracking, coming out here and playing under the lights in front of all the fans,” Griffin said. “It was a lot different than high school and anything I’ve ever experienced.
    “(Beck) took me under his wing out there, and he’s helped me a lot. I’ve come a long way from where I was at the beginning of the year to now.”
    Griffin said he couldn’t ask for a better starting rotation than Beck, Justin Hess and Will Middour.
    “Chris Beck, you know he’s got the fastball coming in there real hard,” Griffin said. “Beck’s really good with his spots. If you call the ball inside or outside, he’s going to hit it there. He’s got two good changeups. He spots those up real good. And his slider is really effective getting guys out.
    “Justin Hess, he’s our Saturday guy right now, he’s really a curveball pitcher. He’s got a good two-seam. And ‘Happy,’ our Sunday guy, Will Middour, we call him ‘Happy,’ his changeup is really effective. That’s his pitch, throwing batters off there.
    “All the guys out there, they’ve really got a good, strong mentality. It’s just so much different from whenever we’re out here just hanging out, having fun. Whenever they step on the rubber it’s a different outlook. They’re just bulldogs on the mound.”
    Griffin said the most challenging GSU pitcher to catch is Hess.
    “Because blocking, that’s a really big deal back there behind the plate, and the curveball, he’s wanting to throw it in the dirt,” Griffin said. “Every now and then we’ll try to throw it for a strike, but you want to bury that curveball in the dirt and try to make those batters get themselves out.
    “So I’m really trying to keep that ball in front of me. That’s the game. That’s baseball. That’s what he needs to do. And my job is to block it. You’re already thinking in your head, ‘Curveball’s coming. I’m gonna have to block this ball.’ But if it’s not in the dirt, you have to keep your balance and stay back there and stick that ball for a strike so you can get that call.”
    Griffin, who is majoring in pre-business and plans to pursue a career as an accountant, said he fell in love with GSU when he was a junior in high school. During summer ball after his junior year, he played in a tournament at J.I. Clements Stadium.
    “We were excited about Chase when we recruited him, and when we signed him, and felt like he was going to be a really good player, and a guy that could be a middle-of-the-order-type hitter,” Hennon said. “He got off to a slow start this year, and that’s the case a lot of times that first year, making that jump from high school to D-I, and I think got some confidence.
    “Had a couple of games there where he got some big hits for us and got a little confidence. I think we started to see his true, natural ability play out as the season has progressed. And he’s only going to continue to improve and get better as he develops and grows.”
    Noell Barnidge may be reached at (912) 489-9408.