CLEMSON Clemson catcher Chris Okey has started all 59 of the Tigers’ games behind the plate, but it’s not as if Jack Leggett doesn’t want to rest the power-hitting sophomore.
Okey doesn’t want to sit in the dugout.
“Every time I think about that and I step back on the field my adrenaline pops right back up. I feel like a little kid again,” Okey said Monday. “I’ve been enjoying it. I love being out there with the guys and winning with them. It’s been a blast.”
Catcher is an extremely physically taxing position; Major Leaguers seldom go a week without a day off. While college teams play a third as many games as the pros, it can still wear a guy down to be behind the plate every day. Heading into the Fullerton (Calif.) Regional of the NCAA Tournament at 6 p.m. Friday against Arizona State, Okey says the heavy workload hasn’t bothered him.
“Okey’s been a warrior for us all year long,” Leggett said. “We haven’t been able to give him any rest, but he’s just a battler.
“You could ask him if he’s tired or make fun with him, say, ‘Hey, if you’re tired today just let me know, we won’t catch you.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m all right. I’m always all right.’ He’s one of those guys that’s always ready to play.”
For the Tigers, he’s been one of the team’s most valuable and consistent players in what’s been an up and down season. Behind the plate, he’s called every pitch and handled every pitcher for more than half the season.
At the plate, Okey’s hitting .320 with team-highs in home runs (12), total bases (127), slugging percentage (.557) and at-bats (228). He’s also got 55 RBIs, which ranks second on the team, and has scored 48 runs while connecting on 16 doubles.
Okey, who became the first Tiger since Matthew LeCroy in 1997 to earn first-team All-ACC honors as a catcher, did a lot of that damage during a scorching hot, 22-game streak in March and April in which he collected 36 hits and 31 RBIs. After that, he hit a bit of a slump when he had five hits over the next eight games, but it wasn’t because of fatigue.
“When I was hitting well earlier in the season I kept saying, ‘I’m playing the game, I’m playing baseball.’ It’s tough to stay on a hot streak for a long time,” Okey said. “Bring it every day and keep playing and keep having fun and hope the cards will fall in your favor.”
Okey, who’s gotten back on track offensively, has led by voice and example this year. When the Tigers were down 10-0 after two innings in a game against Furman, Okey was seen gathering his teammates in the dugout for a brief, but spirited, conversation. He then went out and hit two home runs to spark Clemson to a 23-15 victory to start a late-season push that’s helped the program make its 40th NCAA Tournament appearance.
“He’s playing great on both sides of the plate,” junior starting pitcher Matthew Crownover said. “I give him a lot of credit. He’s done a great job.”
Good times won’t stop for the upbeat Okey after the Tigers’ postseason comes to an end. The Johnny Bench Award semifinalist says he'll join USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team this summer for the second consecutive year.
“Get some innings there,” Okey said, “and have some fun with that as well.”
Who: Clemson (32-27) vs. Arizona State (34-21)
When: Friday, 6 p.m.
Where: Fullerton, Calif.