COLUMBIA — Sit close enough to the field at a Missouri baseball game and you’ll hear a loud voice with a southern twang coming from behind home plate.
“He’s back there talking the whole time,” Tigers pitcher Brett Graves said.
Missouri (9-15) vs. Illinois (17-7)
WHEN: 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Busch Stadium, St. Louis
RADIO: KTGR/103.1 & 100.5 FM, 1580 AM
* The Tigers and Illini met for the first time at Busch in 2010 with Missouri claiming a 7-4 victory. After not playing in 2011, Missouri won 5-4 last season against Illinois in St. Louis.
* Tickets for Tuesday's game remain on sale and can be purchased online through the St. Louis Cardinals website at stlouis.cardinals.mlb.com.
The voice belongs to Dylan Kelly and, through his catcher’s mask, it’s the sound that drives the Tigers.
Kelly, a junior college transfer from Roswell, Ga., emerged as Missouri’s starting catcher after a three-way competition in the preseason. More than a month into the season, Kelly is the Tigers’ top producer at the plate, hitting .363 with 15 RBIs. On a team that has struggled offensively, he has been one of the only constants.
“Just battling with two strikes is kinda what I like to do,” Kelly said. “Be a guy that will hold, make myself a tough out.”
Kelly attributes his competitive streak to his “past life” as a hockey player. Until high school, Kelly spent more time on the rink than the baseball diamond. The hard-nosed values that hockey taught him have carried over to baseball.
“I kind of compare it to a hockey game,” Kelly said. “They tell us to go hard for two hours and you can go home and do whatever else you want. So I try to give every pitcher, when we go out there, I try to run them out there with the most energy I got.”
His intensity behind the plate has quickly made him a favorite among the pitching staff. After a good outing, you can count on a Missouri pitcher giving kudos to No. 55.
“He just keeps me focused and the energy that he brings every pitch is unmatched,” Graves said. “I’ve never seen it before. We all kind of tease him a little bit about it, but it definitely keeps me locked in and focused.”
But what is it that Kelly is jawing about that has his teammates so psyched up?
“He says ‘stay with me’ about 942 times a game,” Graves said. “I’m not kidding. If you guys heard it, you’d be like all right, we get it, we’re staying with you. It’s just small things like that, just subtle reminders to keep focused, keep attacking and basically not to change anything.”
Off the field, it’s hard not to like Kelly. More often than not there’s a goofy, genuine smile on his face, set under a messy mop of bright red hair. Win or lose, he’s quick to crack a joke and shake your hand.
It’s that off-the-field demeanor as much as Kelly’s on-the-field presence that has Missouri’s top pitcher Rob Zastryzny so enamored with his catcher. Zastryzny is quick to spring a smile every time he’s asked about his catcher.
“I love the kid to death,” Zastryzny said. “I’ll talk to him about anything. He’s just a real good kid, and he’s really good to have on your side. I’ve known him for less than a year, and I already feel like he’s family to me.”
And like family, Zastryzny couldn’t help but poke a little fun at Kelly before he finished.
“DK is a phenomenal player,” he said. “He may run a little weird, but he’s a phenomenal player.”