Behind the mask, behind the scene



Before entering the game, before jogging out in response to a coach’s outstretched arm beckoning the pitcher to the mound, before hearing his name broadcast over the PA system, before stepping onto the rubber to stare down the batter, before all that, a UK pitcher has to warm up in the bullpen.

And that pitcher warms up with T.J. Daugherty.

Daugherty, a redshirt sophomore and a preferred walk-on, is the bullpen catcher for UK. And there’s no other backstop the pitching staff would rather have with them backstage.

“He’s definitely my go-to guy when I’m getting loose,” reliever Mike Kaczmarek said. “When a coach tells me to go get warm, it’s, ‘T.J., let’s go.’ ”

The bullpen catcher may not be the most glamorous job. Daugherty usually goes from sitting on the bench to squatting behind the plate to sitting on the bench again more than once in any given game. His sanctuary is a shed just beyond the brick wall that separates the playing field from everything else, including the two bullpen mounds.

But for relievers about to be thrust out between the lines, most of the time in pressurized situations, Daugherty is invaluable in helping them transition from being the one watching the action to being the one making the action.

“My main responsibility is making sure I get the pitchers ready to pitch,” Daugherty said. “That can be a broad thing like getting them loose, but it can be a mental thing like getting guys in the right frame of mind to get them to know they have what it takes to compete.”

Once the pitcher has thrown to Daugherty, the pitcher is turned over to the starting catcher, usually Marcus Nidiffer. He knows how good Daugherty is at preparing the bullpen hurlers.

“He gets them ready more than anything,” Nidiffer said. “Having him down there is like having a coach. You don’t have to babysit or anything. He gets them ready to throw strikes in the game.”

A lot of things can be done to ease a pitcher’s mind and get him into a groove. It might be telling him to settle down and take a deep breath. It might be giving him feedback on how his pitches look. It might be a slap on the rear and encouraging words. Whatever the situation calls for, Daugherty has what it takes.

“He’s just got that … ” said Kaczmarek, trying and failing to find that one particular word to pinpoint why Daugherty is so good at what he does. “He just calms the nerves. It’s another comfort level in the bullpen before you go out in front of the fans and the other team. And I get his reaction on my stuff and I trust it. And he’s usually right.”

The relationship between the pitcher, about to enter the game, and the catcher, about to return to the bench, is an interesting one. Although two go out together to the bullpen, only one will return. And Daugherty has to focus entirely on making sure his teammate is ready to go while completely ignoring anything that has to do with himself.

It’s a role Daugherty embraces.

“When a coach tells someone to go get loose, I’m the first guy down there,” Daugherty said. “I want to be in the middle of it. That’s the way I approach it.”

He’s built a strong rapport with the pitchers he works with day in and day out. He has a personalized handshake for multiple pitchers when they come out of the game. It’s almost as if the pair are completing the circle they started when the two walked out together to the bullpen mound to warm up.

“When they go out there and perform well, you feel good about yourself,” Daugherty said. “You kind of feel like you were out there with them.”

Earlier this year, Daugherty found himself 60 feet, 6 inches away from a pitcher, as he so often has. But this time, he was facing a pitcher from the batter’s box rather than catching him. The man behind the mask had his moment to shine.

“There were lots of emotions running through my mind,” Daugherty said. “A little excitement, a little nerves, a little anxiety. I’ve been here three years and I finally got the opportunity to go up there and hit.”

In his first career at-bat, Daugherty lined a two-RBI single with the bases loaded against San Diego State.

“I saw several pitches, made contact with one, saw it going up the middle, and it was like slow motion running to first,” Daugherty said. “The wait makes the journey more worthwhile.”

It was a magical moment for a guy who received seven votes from his teammates in preseason evaluations on who was a team leader.

But just as quickly, Daugherty was back in the everyday grind of a bullpen catcher, ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice, all to help his pitchers, and ultimately his team, be the best they can be.

“Bullpen catcher is kind of an overlooked position,” Daugherty said. “Even though it’s not the most glamour — I’m not in charge of everything, running the show — there isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing.”