SALADO — As he squats down into his home behind home, Cole Haag pulls his mask over his face in a single fluid motion as his eyes survey the field — his field.
Just a junior in his second year on varsity, the Salado catcher commands the game to come to him.
“I always like to come in confident, and I always like to be aggressive when I’m coming into a game,” Haag said. “But at the same time I’m always keeping in mind that I need to be on my toes.”
A perfectionist behind the plate, Haag hasn’t always been open to criticism — not that there’s been a lot to criticize.
“One game I had gotten on to him and he just said he wasn’t ‘telekinetic’ in front of everybody, so he got a big chewing, but he took it the right way,” Salado coach Chad Krempin said, unable to keep from smiling about the incident. “So (now) we’re working on that skill to try and read my mind.”
Superpowers or not, it’s that quiet bravado that has Haag considered a team leader for the second-ranked Eagles, who are two wins shy of the program’s first state tournament appearance since winning it all in 2008.
“He’ll bring out the best of you on the baseball field,” said junior ace Casey Frazier (10-0).
No. 2 Salado (32-5-1) plays Central Texas rival Troy (27-9-2) in a three-game Region III-2A final series beginning tonight at 7 at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Red Murff Field in Belton. Game 2 is Friday at either UMHB or Baylor Ballpark in Waco at 5 p.m. with Game 3, if needed, to follow 30 minutes later.
The winner of the region final advances to the 2A state tournament, which begins June 5 with state semifinals at 4 and 7 p.m. at Dell Diamond in Round Rock.
Haag’s confidence and command behind the plate is often reflected in his ability to effectively catch and manage Salado’s three very different starting pitchers.
“Cole’s a great guy, and that’s always fun having a catcher that you can relate to, and if you’re struggling, he’ll kind of settle you down and he has that nature about him — he’s a real easy-going guy,” said 6-foot-7 senior flamethrower Reagan Bazar.
Bazar takes advantage of his superior height by creating a more distinguished downward angle with his over-the-top delivery for his low-90s fastball.
Frazier pitches more from a three-quarters arm slot, with his elbow bent at nearly 45 degrees coming out of the windup, similar to former Atlanta Braves right-hander Greg Maddux.
Whereas Hawes, also a starter/closer, pitches from a sidearm delivery, creating a slingshot motion of the arm that allows for a natural left-to-right ball movement that can cause some catchers fits.
“Cole’s ability to catch the ball and stick it when it’s got motion like that is pretty unique,” Hawes said.
Understandably, all of these angles can be difficult for a catcher to adjust to, but Haag seems to take it all in stride.
“Since last year when I started throwing sidearm, he caught on very quickly and from him going from Reagan to Casey to me in a matter of days, his versatilely is unique,” Hawes said. “You’re not going to find many catchers that can catch each one of us accurately. ... I don’t know any other catcher that could do it.”
Haag has allowed only nine passed balls on about 3,600 pitches (1 out of every 400 pitches seen) over 38 games so far, and just once were there two in a single game — a 4-3 loss to Centerville in Game 1 of the region quarterfinals.
“I have confidence that if I throw a bad pitch or, let’s say, a curve ball in the dirt on strike three he’ll block it and throw (the batter) out,” Frazier said.
Since that game, though, Salado has rolled off three straight victories and has won 16 of its last 18 following a 3-2 loss to defending 2A champ Jarrell on March 19.
Haag’s also shown off his arm from behind the plate, holding opponents to just 17 stolen bases all season while the Eagles have racked up 108 on the base paths.
But it’s his command of the pitchers — whether they like to admit it or not — that has allowed Krempin to feel comfortable letting him call pitches at times.
“From time to time when I get frustrated or can’t seem to get in a rhythm with a pitcher, then I let him call it and hopefully, since he’s actually behind the plate, he can kind of help me get the pitcher through a rough spot,” Krempin said. “It doesn’t happen much but it has happened throughout the season and he usually does a pretty good job when he’s called on.”
That confidence also rolls over to batting where Haag is the lone underclassman in the all-important top-4 spots of the batting order. Batting out of the No. 3 hole, Haag leads the team with three home runs and 46 RBIs, is second with a .996 OPS and third with a .342 batting average.
“He’s just that guy,” Bazar said.