It is always a special moment when former teammates from college or high school meet in pro ball for the first time as opponents. Knowing the foxholes that they both went through as teammates, there’s an extra level of respect that exists that is a notch above any other opponent. It’s an even deeper respect for former battery mates.
Kannapolis Intimidators pitcher Taylor Varnell experienced such a moment last Thursday when Hickory Crawdads Matt Whatley, his catcher from their days at Oral Roberts Univ., strolled to the plate to hit in the first inning. It was a moment that didn’t seem fated to happen when the Crawdads posted their lineup earlier that afternoon.
“I came into the clubhouse,” Whatley recalled. “And I didn’t see my name in the lineup. So, I go, ‘okay, I’ve got a day off.’ Then I see that Taylor’s pitching and I go, ‘Man, it’d be kind of fun to face him.’”
However, when a couple of Hickory players came down with minor ailments and were late scratches, Whatley was pressed into duty as the team’s designated hitter. Having already seen the lineup, Varnell, like Whatley, had thought his former ORU teammate was getting the day off.
“When he came walking up there,” said Varnell. “I was kind of surprised. It was hard not to smile a little bit at him.”
Seeing the moment at hand, Whatley tipped his helmet to the pitcher he caught for two seasons in college. “It was fun getting to face Taylor,” said Whatley with a smile. “The last time I got an at-bat off of him was my sophomore fall (season).”
During their time together at Oral Roberts, the two held a genuine respect for each other. In fact, Varnell, who pitched at Western Oklahoma State as a freshman before transferring to ORU, already knew about Whatley when he joined the team.
“From the first time I got on campus, I knew that he was going to be a high draft pick,” Varnell remembered. “I had heard all about him. He’s great behind the dish and a good hitter. I hadn’t seen him behind the plate yet, but he was crazy good back there.”
He credited Whatley, who eventually was the Texas Rangers third-round pick in 2017, for his strike-zone framing abilities, to which, as he said, “got me so many strikes that I wouldn’t have got otherwise.”
After his senior season, Varnell went on to become the 29th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox. Despite some ups-and-downs in his teammate’s career, Whatley thought the left-hander had the ability and would get a chance to go pro.
“It’s fun to see where he’s at from college until now,” said the Crawdads backstop. “He had the stuff, but he was a little inconsistent in college. Now, he’s way more consistent.”
Having thrown to Whatley for two seasons, as they faced each other last Thursday, Varnell knew that he would have to go about his approach to this hitter differently.
“It was kind of hard to attack him in the usual way,” said Varnell. “Because, he knows how I like to pitch. So, I tried to kind of mix it up a little bit.”
The mix of pitches got the better of Whatley in the first when Varnell struck him out. However, in the fourth, Whatley found a pitch he could handle. Unfortunately for Whatley, the line drive to the left side of the infield found the glove of third baseman Bryce Bush.
“It’s baseball,” said Whatley in reaction to the hard out. “Sometimes, you’re going to barrel some stuff up and not get some hits.”
Varnell agreed that Whatley got the better of him the second time.
“That’s a good play by my third baseman,” Varnell admitted. “That one was on me, he should’ve had the hit, honestly.”
In getting to the pros, both players gave credit to another Crawdads alum, Sean Snedeker, who was the pitching coach for Hickory in 1998 during the White Sox affiliation era and later went on to Duke and ORU.
“Sned is one of the best humans I know,” Whatley recalled. “He’s always wanting the best for both of us, but for everyone he’s ever coached. I couldn’t be more happy to have had Sean Snedeker as a pitching coach.”
Varnell said Snedeker, now the pitching coach at Lamar Univ. in Texas, was instrumental in getting his potential pro career on track.
“Going into college, I was a bit of a head case,” Varnell said. “I’d speed it up too fast in my head. He would help me out with the mental part, which is what I needed.”