At the high school level and above, the catcher position in baseball is the most highly rotated due to the strain it puts on your body.
UConn catcher Matt Donlan hasn’t had that luxury this year, but he’s relishing every minute of it. Donlan visited UConn as a high school recruit but there wasn’t a roster spot for him at the time. After taking the long way to Storrs, the transfer has emerged as a key player for the Huskies this year.
Donlan’s backup, freshman Matt Garbowski, hasn’t caught a game in over a month due to back issues. That’s led to 34 straight games for Donlan—nearly 300 innings of crouching down behind the plate and well over 40,000 pitches mashing his glove hand, plus 30 throws down to second base, more if you add snap throws to first or third.
“You have to block out a lot. At this point your hand is swollen, it’s twice the size of normal,” Penders said. “You’re aching, you’re hurting but you have to put it out of your mind.”
UConn head coach Jim Penders knows how grueling it is for catchers in the home stretch of the season. A four-year starter at catcher himself from 1990 to 1994, Penders has coached multiple MLB Draft picks at the position.
Playing through the pain is the rule, not the exception, for Donlan. When Penders approached him earlier in the year to see if he needed a break, Donlan politely told him to get lost. He was ready to start every game for the rest of the year.
“He told me if I have to catch every game, I’m ready to do this,” Penders said.
To keep his body in shape for such a grueling schedule, he takes regular visits to the team masseuse and works closely with Joel DeMarco, strength and conditioning coach, to keep his body in prime condition.
It’s a good thing for UConn baseball that Donlan remains in the lineup. His stats don’t pop out at you like some of the heavy hitters on the team, but .270/.493/.380 as a catcher is nothing to sneeze at. He’s one of the power sources for the team, ranking fourth on the squad with seven home runs and tied for fourth with 13 doubles.
But his real weapon is his arm. He’s caught 18 would-be base-stealers out of 30 attempts, already beating Pat Winkel and Zac Susi’s caught-runner tallies from 2018 and 2019, respectively. Beyond throwing runners out on the base paths, Donlan helps UConn pitchers in other ways. He’s an elite blocker and can frame with the best of them, making life as easy as possible for the man on the mound.
“He’s a stud, his arm can change the game,” UConn reliever Devin Kirby said.
Penders said Donlan’s arm is the best he’s had in the program since he started here. That’s ahead of Brian Esposito, who played in the major leagues, along with Winkel and Max McDowell, who are on the road there.
Donlan is well on his way to playing professional baseball himself, ideally having played his way into getting drafted this July. Even in his short time at Storrs, he says that Penders has been instrumental in taking his game to another level.
“He’s been monstrous in my development as a catcher,” Donlan said of Penders. “He’s worked with me in pretty much every single facet of catching and brought out the best in me behind the plate.
Coming out of Guilford High School, Donlan wanted to be the next great UConn catcher, but it wasn’t on the cards. Penders had to explain that with Winkel—a future major league prospect—in the fold, there wasn’t a spot for him to start every day.
Donlan ended up at Stonehill College, where he was a menace to would-be base stealers, throwing out 36 of the 49 runners.
After two years with Stonehill, that spot opened up, and Donlan got the chance to start for Penders. No wonder he’s taking the chance to play in every available game.
At a crucial juncture in the Huskies’ game against Creighton on Sunday, Donlan shined in unexpected ways. With the Huskies down one in the bottom of the sixth, Donlan singled to reach base, then heard a shout from the Blue Jays dugout.
“Play behind him!”
Donlan isn’t the fastest player on the team, so it’s not unexpected. But Penders at third and Chris Podeszwa at first had timed up the pitchers’ delivery to 1.62 seconds. He locked eyes with Donlan and gave him the sign. The big catcher lit up.
After taking second for only his second-career steal, Donlan would come around and score, representing the tying run in the Huskies’ come from behind win that clinched the series sweep over the Blue Jays.
“He doesn’t [usually] do that, but when an opportunity presents itself you capitalize and it ended up being huge,” Penders said.
He’s still a baseball player, after all, living his dream at UConn a mere four years after he stepped on campus for the first time as a visitor.
“It’s been a blessing. I’ve said it before but it really has been the best few months of my life. It’s been a long time coming,” Donlan said.