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Updated: June 24th, 2014 10:29am
Zulgad: Suzuki proving his worth for Twins behind the plate

Zulgad: Suzuki proving his worth for Twins behind the plate

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - Joe Mauer's shift to first base and the inexperience of Josmil Pinto put the Twins in the market for a veteran catcher last winter.

A.J. Pierzynski, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, J.P. Arencibia and John Buck all were on the Twins radar. None ended up in Minnesota. This is one case where going 0-for-4 didn't turn out to be a bad thing.

Kurt Suzuki agreed to a one-year, $2.75 million deal in late December and has provided defensive stability behind the plate, along with some unexpected offense.

Suzuki entered Monday ranked sixth in the American League with a .321 batting average, along with two home runs and 32 runs batted in. He has a .378 on-base percentage and a .420 slugging percentage. Suzuki credits work he has done with hitting coach Tom Brunansky and coach Paul Motitor with helping him at the plate.

Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach, a former big-league catcher, likes Suzuki's offensive production but is more impressed by what he's doing behind the plate.

"Suzuki has been great for us. We're having a lot of fun with him," Steinbach said. "He's the ultimate competitor back there. He comes in early. He's very, very prepared for every game. I get more excited by the defensive part of what he does. How he goes out there and gets shut down (innings from the pitchers) after innings that we score and how he's handling our pitching staff. To me the bonus is the way he swung the bat this series."

Suzuki went 8-for-15 (.533) playing in all four games of the Twins' weekend sweep over the Chicago White Sox at Target Field. He will take a nine-game hitting streak into Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Angels.

Suzuki's weekend success came with a price. He took a ball off his left collarbone on Saturday and got hit in the left elbow by the bat of Alexei Ramirez during his follow through on Sunday.

"It is part of the gig being a catcher," Suzuki said. "You're in harm's way every single time and it's just one of those things where you have to take care of things and just keep going."

The Twins decision to send Pinto to Triple-A Rochester this month was done in part because the organization wanted to get him more at-bats and also because it became obvious to everyone that he was nowhere near ready to be a big-league catcher on any sort of regular basis.

It was Pinto's defensive shortcomings that are likely the reason the Twins place such a high value on what Suzuki has done for them. Suzuki's offense is nice but his ability to handle a pitching staff, and the level of toughness and professionalism that he shows on a daily basis, are what make him truly valuable.

This does not mean Suzuki is the next coming of Johnny Bench. Not even close. Suzuki has thrown out only seven of the 34 base runners who have attempted to steal on him. That places him 38th of 55 catchers who have caught 160-plus innings this season.

Stolen bases can be pinned both on the catcher and the ability of the pitcher to hold runners close to first base. If Twins pitchers have any frustration with Suzuki not throwing out more runners, it is negated by the fact that he is able to help them in so many other ways.

This includes leading pregame meetings to go over the opposing lineup and having a plan in place each night.

"It's awesome," Twins righty Kyle Gibson said of working with Suzuki. "He's been playing a while and he's seen just about every hitter. He does a lot of research before the series starts. He's already got a plan for my strengths and how he sees that he thinks (those strengths) match up with the other team."

Suzuki, 30, first came to the big-leagues with Oakland in 2007 before being traded to Washington in 2012 and then returning to the A's in a deal last August. He clearly enjoys the art of preparing to catch as well as the actual time he spends with the gear on.

Suzuki refers to himself as a "suggestion box" for the Twins pitchers but it's clear he isn't offering suggestions on what types of pitches and location just for his own good. He has a definite idea of what he thinks will work and if a pitcher disagrees with him that guy better be right.

"I'm a suggestion box and if a guy shakes me off and he feels 100 percent (convinced) in throwing that pitch then throw it," Suzuki said. "Obviously, if he doesn't throw it in the right spot we are going to talk about it a little bit. ... I have a game plan. I have certain times that I want to do certain things, and I do have an idea of what I want to do out there."

Phil Hughes, another free agent the Twins signed last winter, improved to 8-3 this season on Sunday in the Twins' 6-5 win over Chicago. He gave up all five of his runs in the third inning but was able to get through five innings.

Suzuki said when a pitcher like Hughes struggles not only doesn't it bother him but he considers it a challenge.

"That's the fun part of the job," Suzuki said. "That's when you really have to bear down and try to mix things up and go with what's working and pick your spots for certain types of pitches. That's the part that me and Steiny, we talk about that all the time, and (pitching coach Rick Anderson)."

Hughes said he doesn't shake off Suzuki's pitch calls much at all.

"Maybe two, three times a game we'll have a situation where need to talk about a sequence or a pitch or something," Hughes said. "But for the most part he's right on the same page with me. That just tells you he knows what each of the pitchers wants to do. For me, it's getting to know one guy and he's got to know 12 or 13 of them."

If Suzuki is able to continue providing offense as well, the guy some might have thought the Twins settled on as their catcher, will remain a fixture in the lineup.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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