PRO BASEBALL

RailCats add knuckleballer during playoff push

2013-08-21T21:00:00Z 2013-09-16T18:25:24Z RailCats add knuckleballer during playoff pushHillary Smith hillary.smith@nwi.com, (219) 933-3233 nwitimes.com

GARY | It's not with every trade that RailCats manager Greg Tagert consults his catchers before making a pickup.

But not every trade brings in a "commodity" like Joe Zeller, a right-handed pitcher who comes with his own catcher's glove.

The 25-year-old who made his RailCats debut Wednesday throws something that hasn't been seen in Tagert's tenure in Gary: a knuckleball.

"I'm going to definitely earn my paycheck tonight, as well as the home plate umpire," catcher Craig Maddox said before the game against Wichita. "The way that I was taught, your setup will be a little bit different. You'll be in a little more compromised position, because you'll have to turn a little bit more. You really can't square up to the ball, or you'll have a chance to get hit in the chest."

Maddox has a history catching a knuckleball thrower, his last coming four years ago when he was in the Atlanta Braves organization, so Maddox was chosen to catch Zeller.

"We wouldn't have acquired him if neither of our guys were comfortable with him," Tagert said. "It's tough enough to catch a guy when you haven't seen him. Whenever we sign someone new ... we always try to get our guys to catch him in a bullpen, so it's not the first time they catch him in a game. But this is going to be a quick crash course."

The RailCats defense struggled with the new pitcher. He threw two wild pitches, there was a passed ball and an error in the first inning.

The science behind the knuckleball is to throw off the hitter by minimizing the spin on the ball. That can also throw off a catcher behind the plate.

"As a catcher, you're looking for spin. That's how you dictate whether you're blocking the ball, if you go right to left, and not just spin, but your pitcher's body movement," Maddox said. "With a knuckleball there's no spin, and it's just moving. You have to concentrate 100 percent on the ball, and watch it all the way into the glove. We've got guys on this staff that I've caught for two or three years, that I know where there stuff's going. I could catch a guy like Morgan Coombs or Alain Quijano, when they're on you can almost close your eyes. ... With a knuckleballer, more or less you have to watch it all the way into the glove. "

After catching Zeller in a bullpen session Tuesday, Maddox said he was impressed as much with the speed of the new pitcher's throw as he was with the location.

"When it's on, it's pretty good," Maddox said. "It's one of the better knuckleballs I've seen playing against or catching."

The RailCats added Zeller after an injury last Friday to Quijano, who was hit in the pitching hand with a line drive. Wednesday would have been Quijano's normal start in the rotation.

Instead, Quijano was moved to the disabled list Wednesday, retroactive to Saturday, and Marco Gonzalez was moved to the inactive list, retroactive to Aug. 5. Quijano can pitch as early as Saturday. Gonzalez is available as early as Sept. 4, which would be during the first round of the playoffs.

Zeller has been with the Frontier League's Frontier Greys, pitching to an 8-7 record and 3.76 ERA this season. He had a career-high 72 strikeouts in 106 innings with the road-only team.

"We're pretty excited about what Joe's going to bring. I think it's just going to be positive," Maddox said. "There's a lot of positive to having a guy that nobody else has. It's a commodity."

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