GREENSBORO — When Austin Barnes crouched behind the plate and George Springer stepped into the batter's box against Clayton Kershaw on a blistering hot evening in Chavez Ravine tonight, it made a little bit of Hoppers history.
Barnes, the 27-year-old catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the first position player alumnus from the Greensboro Grasshoppers to start a World Series game.
He's the third Hoppers alum to play in the World Series.
Left-handed pitcher Jason Vargas (2005) was the first, starting a game for the Kansas City Royals in 2014.
Utility player Chris Coghlan (2007) was next, going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in three games off the bench for the Chicago Cubs last year.
And now it's Barnes, who is the first Hoppers alum to get a hit in the World Series. He led off the bottom of the third inning against Dallas Keuchel and scorched a 1-1 pitch on the ground into the hole between shortstop and third base.
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Barnes went 1-for-3 in the Dodgers 3-1 victory over the Houston Astros.
Barnes was a fan favorite on the Hoppers 2012 Sally League runner-up team, playing 123 games at second base and catcher. He started the Sally League All-Star game at catcher for the Northern Division. The starting catcher in the Southern Division, by the way, was Yankees farmhand Gary Sanchez.
A contact hitter, Barnes batted .318 with 12 HRs and 65 RBIs, leading the Hoppers in runs (76), hits (152) and doubles (36).
Barnes was a Class-AA player in 2014 when the Miami Marlins traded him along with pitchers Andrew Heaney and Chris Hatcher to the Dodgers for second baseman Dee Gordon and veteran pitcher Dan Haren.
Barnes made the Dodgers roster the next season, and he played a total of 41 games as a backup in 2014 and 2015.
This season was his breakout year. He batted .289 with 8 home runs in 102 games, taking the starting catcher role away from power-hitting switch-hitter Yasmani Grandal.
It's not surprising to anyone who saw Barnes play during that summer of 2012 for the Hoppers.
I wrote a feature story about him back then, published at the start of a homestand on May 1, 2012. Here it is:
By Jeff Mills
GREENSBORO — Austin Barnes made a leaping catch to snare a line drive headed for right field.
He charged hard to handle a chopper over the pitcher’s mound, zipping a throw to first base.
Those two plays by Greensboro’s second baseman helped preserve a no-hitter by a trio of Grasshoppers’ pitchers last week.
They’re not the kinds of plays you’d expect from a converted catcher.
Barnes, the Miami Marlins ninth-round pick in last June’s amateur draft, is still listed as a catcher on the Hoppers roster — even though he’s played 22 of his 23 games so far this season at second base.
“I was an infielder first, and I still think I’m naturally an infielder,” Barnes said. “... I watched Craig Biggio growing up. He was a hard-nosed little player — a catcher who went to second. During this transition, he’s the first guy who came to mind because he was so successful.”
Barnes grew up in Riverside, Calif., and he was a middle infielder through high school. He learned to catch at Arizona State, and he played the new position at the Pac-12 powerhouse for three years.
“We had a lot of talented guys at Arizona State,” Barnes said. “When I was a freshman, our backup catcher got hurt. They asked me if I wanted to try it, and I was all for it. Whatever is going to get me in the lineup, I am going to do. And at that time, it was catching.”
Turns out, Barnes was good at it. He won the job and kept it until getting drafted at the end of his junior season.
Barnes believes the sure hands he developed as a middle infielder helped him make the transition to catching. And his strong throwing arm didn’t hurt, either.
In his one game as a catcher for the Hoppers so far, Barnes threw out 1-of-2 would-be base-stealers.
That same throwing arm prompted his move back to second base last summer in Jamestown. He played 31 games as a catcher and 12 as a second baseman for the Jammers.
“Last year he had a little elbow issue,” said Hoppers manager David Berg, who managed Jamestown in 2011, “but we got him a lot of at-bats as a second baseman. He’s athletic, and he’s good at both. I really like him as a second baseman, and ... the big leagues are always looking for a utility guy who can be a third catcher. It saves a roster spot.”
Because he could play second base, the arm strain didn’t keep Barnes out of the lineup last summer.
“People don’t realize, but as a catcher you’re throwing the ball more than anybody — even more than the pitchers,” Barnes said. “So my arm got a little tired. It’s fine now. I don’t have any problems with it, at second or catcher.”
Barnes said even when he was a full-time catcher at Arizona State, he never put away his infielder’s glove. He would take extra ground balls to keep those skills sharp.
It’s made the adjustment seem seamless this season.
“Ground balls and footwork to turn double plays is the same,” Barnes said. “What I’ve had to work on is positioning, reading the hitters, reading guys’ swings so I can get a jump when the ball comes off the bat.”
Berg said Barnes will likely catch more as the season goes along. Barnes has done all the drills with regular catchers Wilfredo Gimenez and Tony Caldwell, and all three have caught bullpen sessions. Now it’s a matter of getting a little practice time with roving catching instructor Tim Cossins.
Barnes said he’s eager to do both.
“It adds to the value you have within an organization,” Barnes said. “The more positions you can play, the longer you can stay around. I like to play. I like to be in the lineup. Wherever they put me is fine with me as long as I’m in the lineup.”
The Hoppers certainly want Barnes in the lineup.
His .325 batting average and .436 on-base percentage both rank among the top 10 in the South Atlantic League.
And with just seven errors in 412 chances in 66 pro games, Barnes looks like a capable defender. At catcher and second base.