FAIRFIELD — For Lawrence High School baseball coach Rusty Mercier, the preseason played out like a reality television game show. He was the host, judge and audience for Who Wants To Be Lawrence’s Catcher?

By the end of the preseason, it was apparent to Mercier and his coaching staff that Devon Webb was the best candidate for the job, and through the early part of the season, Webb has done nothing to disappoint. In straight steal situations, with a runner on first base and the Bulldogs not calling for any special defensive play, Webb has thrown out three of five would-be base stealers at second. Already, Mercier is letting Webb call most of the game, and Lawrence’s pitchers gave up zero or one run in four of the Bulldogs’ first six games. Webb’s quick learning curve behind the plate is one of the big reasons Lawrence is 4-2, its best start in years, going into Friday’s game against Mt. Ararat.

Webb has been strong at the plate, too. Through the Bulldogs’ first five games, not including Wednesday’s loss at Brewer, Webb had a .352 batting average, with three doubles, three runs batted in, and five runs scored.

After graduating a pair of catchers last season, Mercier knew he’d have to develop a new one this season. Mercier started rolling names of potential catchers around in his head long before the preseason started.

“We had five kids that we looked at. We did a lot of work with all five, and (Webb) was the one that showed the most promise. He was willing to do it for the team, which said a lot to us,” Mercier said.

Webb had been a shortstop his entire baseball career. When Mercier first approached him about the possible position change, Webb was skeptical. Like Mercier, Webb also thought about Lawrence’s catching situation over the offseason, and was willing to give the position a try.

“I’ve always been a shortstop, and (Mercier) came up to me and asked me if I wanted to catch. I decided to do it for the team,” Webb said.

The first time Webb caught, it was with senior pitcher Derek Bowen in Lawrence’s Folsom Gym during the pitchers and catchers week that preceded full team workouts. At first, Webb struggled. It’s one thing to recognize a curveball when you’re at bat. It’s another to catch it, even when you know the breaking pitch is coming.

“In the gym, catching was pretty hard, but once we got out on the field, it got easier,” Webb said. “You have to wait for (the curve), and in the end, it drops.”

Webb worked with assistant coach Steve Mayo on catching fundamentals, and began showing improvement quickly. The arm that helped make Webb a good shortstop was there. In the 5-foot-10, 160-pound Webb, Mercier and Mayo saw a player who had the physical and mental makeup to be patient enough with himself to not get frustrated while he learned the rest.

“Devon, we looked at him as an athlete. We wanted to put an athlete behind the plate,” Mercier said. “He’s a tough kid, and he was willing to do it. We knew he could throw. He’s very coachable, which was a big part.”

Webb said he began to feel comfortable catching in the third game of the regular season, a 2-1 win over Hampden.

“I just felt like that’s where I belonged, and felt good behind the plate,” Webb said.

Mercier saw the light go on above Webb’s head in the Bulldogs’ April 27 game against Bangor. The Rams had a runner on second base, and ran a fake bunt play. The runner got caught between second and third base. Webb ran directly at the runner, before making a strong throw to second base for the out.

“He was just very under control,” Mercier said. “He just handled himself with composure… I can’t recall any passed balls. All his technique is just getting better and better.”

Webb is also getting more comfortable working with the pitchers, particularly seniors Bowen and JT Nutting, the Bulldogs’ top of the rotation guys. After last Friday’s 7-1 win at Messalonskee, in which Bowen started and threw six innings, allowing just one unearned run, Mercier praised Webb’s pitch-calling skills. Webb called approximately 75 percent of the game now, Mercier said.

“I have a lot of confidence in JT Nutting and Derek Bowen. Along with Devon, they’re calling their games,” Mercier said. “Devon will at times during counts look over at me, and that’s when I’ll start helping him.”

Added Bowen: “I think he’s done really well. I didn’t really expect anything. He’s blocking everything, throwing people out.”

Webb said he’s getting more comfortable calling pitches with each game.

“Every time they’re warming up, I’ll ask them how they’re feeling,” Webb said. “Once in a while they shake me off, but not too much.”

To continue improving, Webb just needs more experience, Mercier said. Webb, who also plays football for Lawrence, will catch for his American Legion team this summer. Webb is eager to continue learning his new position.

“I do enjoy catching now,” Webb said. “I’ll just listen to what Coach (Mercier) has to say, because he knows his stuff, and continue to get better.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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