Oilers’ Munoz takes a licking, keeps on ticking

With only one catcher on the team for now, the Peninsula Oilers are putting a lot of weight on Gabriel Munoz’s shoulders.

But the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder out of Cathedral City, California, can handle it. He proved that in last Sunday’s season opener against the San Francisco Seals, when he took a couple beatings from the ball.

“That was one of the worst games I’ve ever caught in my career,” said Munoz, whose host parents are Mike and Deb Morris of Kenai. “I got hit a good amount of times by balls in the dirt and guys that were missing a bunch and coming back and hitting me. I’ve never gotten hit by so many foul tips in one game.”

The good news is that Munoz won’t be the only catcher on the team for long. Drake Zarate from the University of California, Riverside, is expected to be in Alaska by Monday, which will be the last game of a four-game series with the Lake Erie (Michigan) Monarchs. The Oilers also just received outfielder Jordan Sanford of East Tennessee State, who played in Friday’s 6-6 tie with the Monarchs.

Munoz — who plays for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff — said he’s been icing a lot and been doing yoga about 30 minutes a day at the gym after getting beaned with balls to his right forearm and left eye while catching, and a third shot to his back while batting last Sunday. Many of the hits Munoz took were originally from contact off the batter.

“He’s probably the most valuable guy on our team right now,” said pitcher Jeff Paschke. “He’s our only catcher and so he’s the only guy that knows what he’s doing back there.”

Paschke, like many of the other players, just met Munoz, but said he enjoys pitching to him.

“He actually calls my pitches,” Paschke said. “For the most part I don’t shake him off, so I like his pitch calls.”

Munoz said the feeling is mutual.

“Jeff throws a low-90s (mph) fastball, so he has some pretty good movement on it as well,” Munoz said. “When you mix his fastball with his slider, it kind of freezes some guys. That’s how he gets everybody off balance.”

Jimmy Nesselt out of East Tennesse State has also had success connecting with Munoz on the diamond, and Munoz said part of that is due to the spots Nesselt throws to, which focuses on locating pitches to the inside.

But the only pitcher Munoz has previous experience with is San Francisco State’s Nolan Sheridan. The duo played on the same Baltimore Orioles scout team and the Quakes Baseball Academy. Friday evening, Sheridan started on the mound for 6 2-3 innings, and gave up only two hits in the first four innings while throwing to Munoz, and had only four hits and one run in the first six frames.

“It all starts in the clubhouse here,” Munoz said. “I talk to the starting pitcher and see what his out pitch is and see what he likes to throw and what counts.”

“I call my own game.”

In Sunday’s opener, Sean Mason started on the mound with seven strikeouts in five innings. Dallas DeVrieze followed that performance up with seven strikeouts in six innings in Monday’s game.

“We haven’t had a game where someone comes in and gets lit up, they’ve all been pounding the strike zone,” Munoz said. “Yeah, we’ve had some balls in the dirt here and there, but that’s the life of a catcher.”

Oilers coach Kyle Richardson said that because Munoz has gotten almost no playing time in the last year, his work ethic on the field and in the clubhouse has made a difference.

“Every good catcher has come up because of their ability to call the game and control their pitchers, and get them in the right frame of mind,” Richardson said. “It’s how they know which pitches to call in certain situations, knowing their comfort zone, knowing what’s the best pitch to call for this guy.

“Gabe’s got a really good grasp of that. He’s one of the better guys I’ve seen in terms of calling the right game and calling the right pitch.”

Perhaps a big reason for Munoz’s abilities as a catcher comes from having Don Sneddon as a coach. Sneddon is the winningest coach in California community college history, and Munoz played for him at Santa Ana College.

“Don Sneddon’s a big believer in keep on working hard, and don’t stop your dream,” Munoz said. “Everything you do, do it 100 percent.”

In 32 years at Santa Ana, Sneddon has racked up more than 1,000 victories as a coach and five straight Orange Empire Conference championships. It’s that kind of experience to which Munoz attributes the grit and determination that was shown Sunday.

“I’ve got bruises all over my body right now,” Munoz said. “But you just gotta keep your mind-set and keep grinding.”

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