After a 2011 Appalachian League season that saw him continually try to make his way to resembling his lofty pre-Draft resume, an explosive burst at the plate over his last ten games served notice that the Muncie, Ind., resident is positioning himself for a 2012 campaign that hopefully will chalk the last two seasons up as merely a valuable introduction to professional baseball.
By the numbers, it is easy to see that O'Conner's first 39 P-Rays' game appearances in 2011 in the end were not a lost cause. The proof is in his last nine games of the year when O'Conner, who hit .157 overall on the season for the P-Rays, hit .292 (7-for-24) with both a team-leading three homers and eight RBI over the team's last ten-game stretch.
This eruptive awakening can be easily explained with a simple new outlook by the still young 19-year old O'Conner.
"The main thing is I got into a rhythm and was able to break free of thinking too much at the plate. I simply just tried to relax and as a result, I started playing better," O'Conner reasoned during a recent October 14 phone interview.
The ability to continue with this plan in 2012 could dictate a resurgence in his offensive game that will return him to the sparkling numbers he enjoyed during his 2011 senior season at Cowan (IN) High School, when he .470 in 66 at-bats with eight homers, 40 RBI, 13 doubles, 15 stolen bases and 43 runs scored.
While those numbers were eye-popping, they elevated dramatically further once the former high school infielder made the conversion to catching a full-time switch during the summer following his junior season.
"I just was sort of fooling around with catching and then some folks said I looked good at that position. The interest in me from scouts really seemed to gear up once they saw me catch," revealed O'Conner, who added that just prior to the 2010 draft he figured it would come down to either the A's or Cubs selecting him.
But his new defensive home behind the plate was certainly no secret to the other major league teams as he was ranked the top high school catcher for 2010 in the country by Baseball America magazine. The Rays were the ones to snatch him up, drafting him as a supplemental first round pick in 2010 baseball amateur draft. He was the first catcher ever taken by the Rays in the first round of a draft.
Although he has been at the plate as a hitter for a much longer time than he has been behind the plate as a catcher, O'Conner stated that throwing a baserunner out already ranks alongside with the thrill of hitting a home run for him.
As for the immediate past, he sung the praises of playing in the Appalachian League for the 2011 Princeton Rays.
"I thought Princeton was a great small town to start my career in. It was my first time being part of a team where we travelled extensively and I liked it. It was a good experience," remembered O'Conner.
Okay, that's the past, but what about the future for Justin O'Conner?
"I think about the future a lot. For next year, depending on how my shoulder is feeling, Bowling Green (Tampa Bay's full-season Midwest League team) would be the goal. I just have to remember to have a plan and stay with it and everything will be all right," summed up O'Conner.
Sounds like he is chomping at the bit to pick up right where he left off at the end of the 2011 season in Princeton, doesn't it?
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