Minnesota welcomes Athmann’s return

Austin Athmann missed more than a month of action with an injury.

Gophers catcher Austin Athmann swings at a pitch Feb. 21. Athmann recently returned from an injury.

Photo courtesy of Gopher Sports

Gophers catcher Austin Athmann swings at a pitch Feb. 21. Athmann recently returned from an injury.

by Betsy Helfand

There wasn’t any question of who would start for the Gophers behind the plate heading into this season.

Minnesota senior Matt Halloran was supposed to be the team’s primary catcher. That was the plan, at least.

Halloran had an arm injury that flared up during the first game of the season, and he hasn’t caught a game since.

As a result, the position has been a revolving door of sorts for the Gophers.

Minnesota freshman Austin Athmann, Halloran’s backup, got off to a hot start until he went down with an injury of his own last month. He returned behind the plate Tuesday for the first time since March 9.

With Athmann out, junior Mark Tatera took over most of the catching duties. Troy Traxler did some catching as well, and even Matt Stemper, who head coach John Anderson said hadn’t caught since early high school, played the position.

In late March, starting pitcher Ben Meyer said it was an adjustment with different catchers behind the plate because the staff is so used to Halloran.

“It’s kind of a learning process for both us and the catcher, but it’s gone pretty smoothly so far,” Meyer said.

Now, with Athmann back, the Gophers might regain some normalcy.

“He was doing a very good job for us before he got hurt,” Anderson said. “Mark Tatera’s done a very nice job for us, but Austin was recruited here to be our catcher.”

Athmann went 3-for-3 with a walk, a run scored and an RBI in during Tuesday’s win over North Dakota State.

Anderson said he’s going to be cautious with the freshman catcher, making sure to not rush him back.

“We have to protect his arm,” he said. “If we don’t, he’s going to end up back in the same place.”

Anderson said he’s hoping Athmann can catch one game a weekend to start.

Athmann’s return might be slow, but the Gophers are happy to have him back.

“It’s just good to have a guy back there who’s done quite a bit of catching and can help us defensively and offensively,” first baseman Dan Olinger said.

Tatera has started all but one game this season playing both corner infield positions — first base and third base — as well as catcher.

Athmann is strictly a catcher.

Halloran has served as a mentor to Athmann, and Athmann said he tried to help others while he was out with injury.

“I was kind of trying to do [Halloran’s] part like he did for me, just trying to help the catcher … be the best catcher they can,” he said.

His head coach said Athmann picked up a thing or two while on the bench.

“He’s paid attention, he’s watched the game, he’s watched the way people are pitching people,” Anderson said. “You can learn a lot by watching if you pay attention and apply some of the things you learn.”

Though he learned while watching from the bench, Athmann is more than ready to be playing again.

“It feels absolutely great to be back,” he said.