By Will Burchfield
Brad Ausmus spent over 1,900 games behind the plate during his 18-year MLB career.
Suffice to say he saw just about every type of pitcher out there.
The big righty. The crafty lefty. The flamethrower. The junkballer. The knuckleballer.
He caught pitches from Trevor Hoffman in San Diego, Randy Johnson in Houston and Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles. He even caught Rolaids Relief Man Award-winner Todd Jones in Detroit.
So, out of all the pitchers for whom Ausmus crouched behind the plate, who had the nastiest stuff?
The manager paused for a few seconds and racked his brain. So many possibilities. So many guys worth mentioning.
He looked up.
“Roy Oswalt when he first came up might have been one of the nastiest. Big slow curve, but he also threw like 97 ,” Ausmus said.
Oswalt entered the majors in 2001 with the Astros as a 23-year-old. His first appearance came on May 6 versus the Expos. Ironically, Ausmus wasn’t behind the dish that day. Backup catcher Tony Eusebio was.
But Oswalt, at the time a reliever, pitched again the next day, this time to Ausmus. The catcher was impressed, and for good reason.
Oswalt would go on to make 28 appearances in his rookie season, 20 of them as a starter, and post a record of 14-3 with a 2.73 ERA. He finished second in the N.L. Rookie of the Year race to a young slugger on the Cardinals by the name of Albert Pujols.
The right-hander retired in 2013 with 163 wins, a 3.36 lifetime ERA and over 1,800 strikeouts. Not bad.
But Oswalt wasn’t the filthiest pitcher Ausmus ever caught.
“The guy who had the nastiest stuff would be a guy no one would remember. He threw 95 and the ball moved all over the place. He was in the big leagues for a while, a guy named Keith Shepherd,” Ausmus said. “Hard to catch at 95 because of the movement.”
Shepherd only pitched in the majors for four seasons: 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1996. He made 41 appearances over his career, posting a 6.71 ERA. He wasn’t very good.
Didn’t mean he was easy to catch.
“He had nasty stuff,” said Ausmus.
Shepherd never actually pitched to Ausmus in the big leagues. But the two crossed paths while playing for the Rockies’ Triple-A team in 1993. If Shepherd had trouble controlling his pitches in the majors, it’s easy to imagine how wild he was in the minors.
Shepherd, who pitched in the minors every year from 1986 to 1997, is one of those guys who will fade away as a footnote in some baseball almanac. But he does have one claim to fame.
“You might remember him because he pitched for the Rockies and he hit Darryl Strawberry one time and called him out to the mound,” Ausmus said with a smile. “I don’t know if you remember that.”
It was actually Cory Snyder who Shepherd threw at, and ironically enough (fittingly enough?) Shepherd missed him. But true to the story, Shepherd motioned for Snyder to charge the mound, ready for a brawl. (It had been a particularly heated game.)
“I was shocked,” Snyder would say afterward, via the LA Times. “I stared at him like, ‘What is this, a wrestling match?’ He put his hands down and motioned to me: ‘Come on, come on, let’s go.'”
Snyder declined, not wanting to incur a suspension, but his Dodgers teammates poured out of the dugout in Shepherd’s direction, led by – you guessed it – Darryl Strawberry.
“They cut us off when we got there, but Lenny (Harris) got him and Carlos (Hernandez) got him,” Strawberry said. “You have to protect your teammates. Cory did the right thing, not going out there. Let us come off the bench and do it. I don’t mind.”
Shepherd, who was an amateur boxer (seriously) before pursuing baseball, was ejected from the game. He tipped his hat to the Colorado crowd on his way off the field.
“It was just a bad situation that developed before I knew what was happening,” he said. “Punches flew everywhere. I was just trying to stay on my feet.”
Back in the day, Ausmus might have said the same thing about trying to catch Shepherd. Only it wasn’t punches flying everywhere, it was pitches.