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Seby Zavala making case to be in Sox playoff catching plans

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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Opportunity knocked.

And Seby Zavala has answered.

No one is expecting the three-homer night Zavala unleashed Saturday night against the Cleveland Indians to be a regular thing. And even after sending his first, second and third career big league dingers out of Guaranteed Rate Field in the same game — the first time in major league history such a thing had ever happened — he's still got just eight hits on the season.

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But even before Mt. Zavala erupted Saturday, the 27-year-old was busy carving out a spot as the No. 2 catcher on a Chicago White Sox team planning a run to the World Series.

"I've been working my whole life for this, for an opportunity up here," Zavala told NBC Sports Chicago in an interview last month, "and it feels good and rewarding to know that everything I'm doing off the field is producing on the field behind the plate."

Prior to the trade deadline, it was wondered if backup catcher could be one of the things on Rick Hahn's shopping list. Yasmani Grandal is working his way back from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his knee — and doing so at an impressive rate — and is going to miss more time before his return, expected to come before the end of the regular season.

 

But even with Grandal back at some point, could the White Sox have benefitted from replacing Zack Collins with a veteran presence? That was the wonder. Collins, the former first-round pick, has been lauded for his improvement behind the plate and working with the team's pitchers, and his .330 on-base percentage lines up with the strong on-base numbers he put up in the minors. But he's hitting just .208.

A potential replacement for Collins, though, has materialized in the form of Zavala, who was called up after Grandal's injury, the White Sox then opting for defense over offense, choosing Zavala instead of bringing Yermín Mercedes back to the bigs to provide more pop for a lineup that, at the time, was down Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal, in addition to losing its then-hottest hitter in Grandal.

That decision has worked wonderfully. Not because Zavala had one huge offensive outburst but because his presence behind the plate has been so welcome that he's overtaken Collins as the team's most frequent starter at catcher with Grandal in recovery mode. With his start Sunday, he's started six of the team's last eight games, taking the baton from Grandal and Collins and continuing to help what's been arguably the best starting staff in baseball have success.

"Any time you can come up to a big league team that's been successful prior to me getting there, and keeping it rolling, it's a good feeling," Zavala said. "Good feedback from the pitchers. I feel like we're cohesive, we're one heartbeat. ... All my work that I've been putting in trying to learn these guys, it happened really quick so I had to do it pretty much overnight. But it's fun. They tell me what they like, and I've watched their outings. Just try to do everything that they need."

"I think he receives the ball very, very well. A very cerebral catcher, he calls a good game," White Sox starting pitcher Carlos Rodón told NBC Sports Chicago last month. "He puts down a finger, and I just throw it. ... He looked like he's done it for a while. That's kind of what I got out of (working with him)."

"He’s a guy that really takes pride in what he’s doing behind the plate," White Sox starting pitcher Lance Lynn said after throwing to Zavala last weekend, "whether it’s his game-planning, knowing what you do, being able to get strikes framed, throw guys out. ... He’s the whole package as a catcher back there behind the plate, and you’re seeing him get the chance to catch guys and show what he’s about. ... He does everything you ask for a guy to do. ... You trust him because you know, in your conversations, he’s done his homework. It’s a good feeling."

It all means there's a decision to be made once Grandal returns: Who will be the White Sox No. 2 catcher for October?

 

Going by the current trend, the job could very well go to Zavala rather than Collins, something that would have been difficult to forecast as recently as the beginning of last month, when Zavala, despite five homers, was hitting .178 at Triple-A Charlotte. That offense might never come as impressively as it did in a trio of at-bats Saturday night. And it's possible that much more of it might not come at all, even though Zavala has confidence in what he can do at the plate.

But what he can do behind the plate took precedence in the team's decision following Grandal's injury. And it would be no surprise, at this point, to see it take precedence once again following Grandal's recovery.

Zavala isn't looking that far down the road, taking a "here and now" approach everything, which seems like something that White Sox brass would appreciate, particularly La Russa, who's spent the season preaching that kind of mindset.

In the end, Zavala, whose previous major league stint in 2019 lasted all of five games, could be exactly what the doctor ordered for the White Sox when it comes to a No. 2 catcher they can count on come playoff time.

"It's a different feeling than when I came up in '19," Zavala said. "Here, you come up, and it's like, 'How are we going to win today?' The clubhouse doesn't care who's on the field, we're going to get the job done that day, we're going to compete every at-bat. It's a good feeling trying to win every day.

"Coming to the field knowing you have a chance to win, it's exciting. You're never tired, the adrenaline's there. It's a different feeling. Down in the minor leagues, sometimes you're working on stuff, trying to get it right. But here, it's, 'We've got to win, and that's the bottom line.'

"To me, that's the most fun in baseball you can have is, 'How are we going to win today with what we've got?'"

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