By Brenden West
Assistant Sports Editor
CLINTON – There was just something about them. Tyler Marlette was a short, stocky, college-bound third baseman; Marcus Littlewood was a shortstop on the tall side who made all the plays you should in the middle infield.
Something somewhere along the line said to the Seattle Mariners scouts, “These two kids ought to be catchers.” And so, here they are manning the Clinton LumberKings’ backstop.
“I had never caught before, not even in Little League. I’d never even thought about catching,” Littlewood, 21, from Saint George, Utah, said.
“I caught maybe six games my senior year of high school,” said Marlette, 20, from Oviedo, Fla. “A couple scouts went up to my coach and were like, ‘A lot of us want to see him behind the plate.’
“That’s when I got the clue that if I wanted to be drafted, it wouldn’t be at third base.”
Littlewood’s future also appeared brighter if he made the change.
“They said it’d be a good opportunity for me, so I thought I’d try it out,” he said. “From there it just took off.”
Both players have essentially grown into their roles together. Marlette and Littlewood met two years ago at a rookie training camp.
“I thought he was mean,” Marlette said, jokingly. “I tried to approach him because I knew he was newer. We were with a bunch of older guys and he was the only other high-school-aged catcher.”
Marlette’s first impression was that Littlewood was too standoffish.
“I’m just not very approachable,” Littlewood said, laughing.
Now with the LumberKings, both players room together on every road trip and spend hours together on the practice field. The player who doesn’t get the night’s start watches from the bench and gives his counterpart an observational scouting report. In the midst of a three- or four-game series, the previous night’s starter will suggest batter tendencies for the opponent’s lineup.
Compared with other players on the team, the Clinton catchers are babies at their position. Both are in their second full year at the spot. Unlike a teammate pitcher who can tap into years of situational experience, both players are honing in on the basics of professional catching.
The learning curve wasn’t as steep as either player imagined.
“There wasn’t one big hurdle. It’s a tough position to play,” Littlewood said. “I gained a lot of respect for catchers as I was transitioning. It’s hard to slow the game down at first. That just comes through experience. I think I’m learning to slow it down more.
“It’s all similar to the infield.”
Yet, the LumberKings have high expectations for Littlewood and Marlette, holding both players to higher attitude standards than the rest of the dugout. Manager Eddie Menchaca said the staff constantly gameplans with both catchers. He was actually on staff before Littlewood made the conversion.
“These are the guys that are pretty much dictating the game,” Menchaca said. “They control that. They control the speed, the tempo. When a (pitcher’s) struggling, the catcher calms him down. There’s a lot of things that go through the catcher.
“It is a process because they’re used to wearing a different glove. It’s not easy to convert from infield to catcher because the infield’s in front of you.”
Although both players could reasonably be labeled “projects,” the experiment has yielded major benefits for Clinton. Marlette leads the team in batting average, slugging, has six home runs in 152 at-bats. He was also named a 2013 Midwest League All-Star. In 29 games, Littlewood has a .250 average and 14 runs. Through 80 games, there’s only one error between them.
The players credit the work of Mariners roaming catcher coach John Stearns (a former major league catcher whom Marlette called his “idol” at the position); Stearns was named interim manager of Seattle’s Triple-A club, the Tacoma Rainiers in early May.
“He’s very enthusiastic and positive,” Littlewood said. “Baseball is full of failure, so you need someone to sort of trick you into thinking you’re good.”
And, unlike with the other positions, both players said they want the best for each other even while competing for one spot.
“He’s probably one of my closest friends here,” Marlette said.
“You don’t see that very often,” Littlewood said.