Dunedin catcher Max Pentecost sprung from his crouch and delivered a strike to second base, his throw beating Jupiter outfielder and leading base thief Kyle Barrett to the bag for the first out of the seventh inning of the Blue Jays June 1st matchup with the Hammerheads. The next batter walked and, like Barrett, tried to steal second base. For the second time in the inning, Pentecost made a perfect throw to second to catch the runner.
The two runners caught stealing seemed like the least significant part of the day for Pentecost. Prior to the game he had been named Dunedin's Batter of the Month for April, and it was announced he was selected to the 2017 Florida State League All-Star Team. But, for fans who have followed Pentecost's career, the importance of two strong, accurate throws from behind the plate would not be lost.
Prior to this season, the last time Pentecost appeared behind the plate was in July 2014, just a month after he had been selected in the first round (11th overall) of the 2014 draft by the Blue Jays. In the time in between, Pentecost had three shoulder surgeries, missed an entire season, and left many wondering if he'd ever appear behind the plate again.
"It was really frustrating," Pentecost said in a sit-down interview earlier this season about his injury history. "Breaking through the process of having three surgeries, getting back to being strong enough, getting used to throwing again, there's so much motion…I pretty much had to relearn how to use my whole shoulder."
In his first two professional seasons, Pentecost was able to play just 25 games because of shoulder injuries. After missing the entire 2015 season, he appeared only at designated hitter in his 2016 return. At times, he struggled to find the motivation to continue the grueling rehabilitation of his arm required to get back on the field with no guarantee he'd ever be able to catch again.
"The main thing for me was not thinking about it," Pentecost said about staying motivated while on the disabled list. He found solace away from the field when he was unable to get on it. "My thing was fishing. I had to go fishing. I'd go to the complex, do my stuff, then I'd go fishing and completely get my mind off of it. When I was at the field, I'd do everything the best I could. Once I was away from the field, I got away from it."
Returning to the field as a designated hitter in 2016, Pentecost's bat seemed to have no rust on it. He hit .314 with seven home runs in 62 games for the Lansing Lugnuts (A) before receiving a late-season call-up to Dunedin. He picked up right where he left off in 2017, hitting .328 with six home runs in the month of April, going on an extended 18-game hitting streak during which he hit five home runs in a stretch of seven games. With the season's first half winding down, he leads all qualified Dunedin hitters in a bevy of offensive categories including hits (53), average (.303), runs batted in (40), homers (9), total bases (90), and slugging (.514).
For all his offensive accomplishments this season, it's been his work behind the plate that has been most encouraging. In eleven games at catcher, Pentecost hasn't allowed a passed ball and has caught five of eight attempted base stealers.
"It was almost like riding a bike," Pentecost said of his return to catching after two years off. "Getting back there was comfortable."
While he has shown little rust physically behind the plate, Pentecost wants to continue to develop the mental aspects of catching.
"Reading the game, making calls on a bunt play, reading a hitter's swing, deciding how we're going to approach a hitter with the pitcher and what he has today," Pentecost listed as some of the skills he's working to sharpen in his return behind the plate. "Catching on the side, it's just 'here comes a fastball, here comes a curveball', it doesn't matter if it's on or off that day. In a game, you have to figure out what the pitcher has, what he doesn't, and what to go to in what situation. It's the game atmosphere. You need to get reps. There's no way to replicate it."
As frustrating as the injuries and time off the field have been for Pentecost and fans alike, there is silver lining. Without injuries, he likely would have never become a Blue Jay in the first place. Drafted in the seventh round by the Texas Rangers in 2011 out of high school, an elbow injury suffered his senior year led Pentecost to not sign and to attend Kennesaw Mountain University instead. After hitting .422 with nine home runs in his junior season of college ball, he became a Blue Jay in the 2014 draft. Now, three years later, Pentecost credits his different injuries for lessons learned about catching and his own body that will make him better in the long term.
"I've learned so much about my body, how it works, how it reacts to this or that. I've been able to put together a plan to strengthen it, to recover it, to prepare it for a long run. Through the two years I wasn't able to catch any, I was able to catch a lot of bullpens, work on a lot of things that I probably wouldn't have had time to work on if I wasn't hurt. All in all, we were able to make good time with what we had not playing and work on some things. I think it will pay off."
Many have suggested Pentecost move to a different, less physically demanding defensive position to speed his ascension through Toronto's system. Pentecost, though, has little interest in moving from behind the plate.
"I don't consider myself as much of a hitter as I do a catcher. I just go up there and swing it and if something good happens, then good. For me, I think what I have will play a little better as a catcher because I do try to hit for an average. I don't try to hit home runs. I'm more of a gap-to-gap, doubles kind of guy. I think being able to stay with that approach as a catcher is something that I think could make me move faster."
Pentecost, unfailingly polite through his southern drawl, is not one to show emotion often. When asked about his long hitting streak or his April home run binge, he simply shrugs off the praise. However, as he talks about catching, he can't keep a grin from spreading across his face.
"I love catching. I'm more comfortable catching. It's the thing I grew up doing and I've loved it ever since I was a kid."
Happy and healthy back behind the plate, Pentecost is eager to put his injuries in the past and continue his development both at the plate and behind it as he seeks to lead Dunedin into the Florida State League playoffs.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.