Cosme Caballero is not considered one of the Missouri baseball team’s returning starters this season, but by no means is he a rookie.
As a back-up to senior Brad Flanders last season, Caballero wasn’t expected to see much playing time. But when Flanders was injured a third of the way through the conference season, playing time hit Caballero squarely in the nose. He started 14 games in Flanders’ absence, including 11 Big 12 Conference games.
That’s a good thing for this year’s Tigers, who start their season against Portland at 3 p.m. today in Phoenix at the Oakland A’s Spring Training Tournament. Despite losing Flanders to graduation, MU still has an experienced catcher in Caballero.
“Looking back on it, (Flanders’ injury) is probably the best thing that could have happened for (Caballero),” sophomore pitcher Nathan Culp said. “Getting some experience last year will play a huge part in this year.”
Coach Tim Jamieson also said Caballero’s suddenly important role last season can do nothing but help him now.
“It’s just a comfort level that he has,” Jamieson said. “One of the distractions that you have the first year is the unknowns. A lot of those are gone for him.”
Flanders had started 38 consecutive Big 12 games for the Tigers when he was hit with a pitch in the hand during the fifth inning of a game against Nebraska last April 18. He finished the inning, but Caballero replaced him in the top of the sixth.
He played the rest of that game and started the next 14 before Flanders returned. MU propelled itself to an NCAA Tournament berth with a 7-7 record in that stretch, including a series win against then-No. 1 Texas.
Caballero said he was unhappy to see Flanders injured but said his increased playing time was beneficial.
“(It helped) a lot, especially since a lot of it was in-conference and the tougher part of our schedule,” he said. “Mostly, it’s just an experience factor. When you go in there and play, it helps to know what you’re up against.”
He was up against some tough Big 12 pitching. Caballero batted .198 last year and had seven extra-base hits, all doubles, in 96 at-bats. But junior infielder Trevor Helms expects improvement in that category.
“I think he can hit pretty well, to be honest with you,” Helms said. “He didn’t really show it that much last year, but I think he can hit.”
Caballero, now a senior, will also help in another way. Because the Tigers lost their top two starting pitchers from a year ago, a young staff will take over. Between them, the five pitchers who will start the majority of the Tigers’ games have nine career conference starts. According to Jamieson, having a familiar face behind the plate will help with that inexperience.
“He has a better feel for the returning pitchers,” Jamieson said. “He’s been around them for a couple years and has a better understanding of what the coaches expect him to do or how to call a pitch.”
Caballero and junior pitcher Nick Admire also mentioned that having faced a particular hitter previously might help the catcher know what pitches to call.
“A lot of the guys that we’re playing this year, we faced them last year,” Caballero said. “That will transfer over to this year. We kind of have a decent source of information on them.”
The pitchers rave about Caballero’s poise and pitch-calling.
“He’s a really good guy, he’s a real easy guy to talk to and I like talking to him in between starts or in between innings,” Culp said. “He’ll let me know what’s wrong. He’ll talk to any of the pitchers, so he’s a real good guy to have catching.”
Although Jamieson said he was pleased with the progress of junior-college transfer J.C. Field and freshman Dan Pietroburgo behind the plate, Caballero is “our starting catcher by far,” partly because he has seen plenty of action.
“Experience is a wonderful thing,” Jamieson said. “It can lead to so many different things, and one is that it allows you to relax and play ball.”