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Buckley: Despite some errant throws, Blake Swihart says return to catching is going ‘all right’

February 19, 2017 GMT

FORT MYERS — You hope the story about Blake Swihart is there is no story about Blake Swihart.

You hope he is just another player who uses spring training as a seven-week tuning-up exercise for a season the Red Sox hope will last seven months. (Including the whole month of October, which would mean the World Series.)

Beyond that, Swihart, like all players, wants to stay off the radar during spring training. Yet there was a Blake Swihart blip on the radar a couple of days ago, and it was a blip caused by a yip.

Except it was not a yip, Swihart said yesterday, referring to a piece of video by Comcast SportsNet showing the young catcher having trouble throwing the ball back to pitcher Rick Porcello during a bullpen session.

“Since I got here two, three weeks ago I’ve been throwing one or two over (the pitcher), just working on my new slot,” Swihart said. He was matter of fact as he spoke these words, even a little amused, to the degree that he wants everyone to just calm down and wait for things to fall back into place.

But, yes, everyone worries a little when a good player starts to make bad throws. And when the bad throws continue, that’s when that very bad baseball term that nobody likes to talk about — the yips — gets entered into the discussion.

The yips, in baseball parlance, pertains to a sudden, inexplicable inability to throw a baseball. Mackey Sasser, a former big league catcher, famously had this condition. So did second baseman Steve Sax, and, later, second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. Among others.

It can look funny except that it’s not.

So, yes, when Swihart seemed to have trouble throwing the ball a couple days ago . . .

“You guys picked one video to show, but it’s all right,” he said. “I know how it works.”

He’s not angry that the video made the rounds. He knows how it works. The challenge now is to make sure his arm works, and that in short order this will be just another spring training story that has no relevance to the upcoming season.

Red Sox manager John Farrell said it’s “something that has just kind of popped up a little bit. (He) has always been a good athlete, a good athletic catcher. Accurate thrower. There’s some technique that he’s working through right now and this isn’t even throwing the ball to second base. It’s just a matter of the transferring, getting the ball back to the pitcher in good shape. We’re working on it right now.”

The yips?

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said the manager. “Again, we’re just trying to create some consistent repetition to it right now.”

Swihart, a native of New Mexico, was an outfielder and shortstop before becoming a catcher. When he played for a Team USA under-18 squad in 2010, he was used at first base. The Red Sox selected him as the 26th overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft and he sailed through the Boston farm system — as a catcher — and found himself in the big leagues in May 2015, just a few weeks after his 23rd birthday. The Sox didn’t have much choice: A rash of injuries forced them to rush the kid to Boston.

You probably know what happened next. The Sox used Swihart in left field last year and he played well — he made a circus catch going to his left at Toronto’s Rogers Centre — but his season ended on June 4 when he crashed awkwardly into the side wall at Fenway Park in pursuit of a fly ball, injuring his left ankle.

Now he’s back, and he’s back to catching. And maybe, hopefully, that’s what this is all about: He moved to the outfield, got hurt, missed more than a half a season, and he’s trying to reprogram his body to be a catcher again. He says he’s been working with bullpen coach Dana LeVangie to that very end: Getting the brain to tell the arm to throw like a catcher.

“And the other day I had talks with Dana about what I need to do, and I started doing it and that was the only day I really had a big problem throwing the ball,” Swihart said. “Just learning my new arm slot. It’s gonna take time, but it’s gonna be fine.”

The Sox have plenty of catching, including young Christian Vazquez and veteran Sandy Leon. Plus, Swihart has minor league options that would make it convenient for the Sox to send him to Triple-A Pawtucket to begin the season.

But he doesn’t sound like he fears making the switch back to catcher. Swihart sounds so adamant about this that it reminds me of spring training in 1997, when veteran shortstop John Valentin was moved to second base to make room for rookie Nomar Garciaparra.

Valentin didn’t much like it. He eventually agreed to the move — he also played third base that season — but not before saying, “But I will always consider myself a shortstop.”

Told that story yesterday, Swihart said, “Yeah, and I will always be a catcher. I agree with that. My mindset is that I am a catcher.”

All he needs now is for the mind to agree with the mindset.