By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: SU catcher Matt Padeway sets up for a pitch behind home plate in a game vs. Keystone. March 7. Emma Reider photo
While the Salisbury University baseball team battled through each game in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, there was always a steady force behind the plate. Despite being the man behind the mask, every Sea Gull baseball fan knew his name, Tom LaBriola.
A first team all-conference and all-region player in his senior year, LaBriola found success in the batter’s box and behind the plate. In the field, the Huntingtown, Md. native aided the pitching effort by only allowing 10 passed balls in his career.
With the ping of the bat, LaBriola’s career featured 159 hits, 121 RBI’s, a .366 batting average and .437 on-base percentage. Entering 2018 though, the star catcher was now in a new role, on the bench as an assistant coach.
That left a big hole to fill in the dirt around home plate. An intense catching battle between multiple Sea Gulls left one man for the job throughout this season, sophomore Matt Padeway, who only appeared in five games as a freshman.
“I just think all-around as far as the defense, the throwing, the hitting, the all-around pushed him to the front at the end of the fall,” SU Baseball Head Coach Troy Brohawn said. “Then at the beginning of the year, he struggled with the stick, still maintained being defensive behind the plate.”
The SU coaching staff went with Padeway’s fielding to aid an experienced starting pitching staff in 2018. His development eventually came through at the plate.
Offering output here and there at the plate, April finally became Padeway’s breakthrough point in the season. The Fairfax, Va. native went on a seven-game hitting streak from April 6 to April 18, including a three-game home run streak.
Within those stretches was arguably his best game at the plate this season, notching three hits against the then No. 5 CNU Captains on April 12. In an SU offensive outburst, Padeway accounted for two three-run home runs, totaling six RBI’s in the game.
Brohawn says that everything clicked in the batter’s box for Padeway when he set a plan during each at-bat. For Padeway, that plan included realizing where his power really came from.
“For him, it’s all pitch selection. He has as much power as a young man as anyone on the team. His power is up-the-middle to right center field,” Brohawn said. “Until he implemented it when he went to the plate, he wasn’t having the success. Now he’s going up there looking to drive the ball up the middle and to the other side of the field, and I think that correlates to his success.”
Padeway agrees that pitch selection was a big factor.
“Just being a little more patient at the plate and instead of chasing a lot, I want to be able to drive that way. It’s helped me a lot,” Padeway said.
His recent success at the plate has elevated his bat to a consistent threat, batting a .312 average and .423 on-base percentage. Those numbers have aided him in accumulating 19 RBI’s and 14 extra-base hits including tied for the team-lead of home runs with five.
The consistency at the plate is a boost to an already strong offensive team. Padeway’s defensive attributes were a need in the field for SU. In 2018, SU has developed a veteran starting staff that the team has run with all season.
Seniors Connor Reeves, Austin Heenan and Wes Whitlock are the only three pitchers with more than 50 innings pitched this season. Reeves has the most with more than 84 innings.
Those 84 innings have been fruitful for Reeves, currently leading the CAC in ERA with a 1.49 mark and wins with a 10-3 record. Add in 69 strikeouts (fifth in the CAC) and only 12 walks for even more strength on the mound.
“Having [Padeway] behind the plate is huge,” Reeves said. “I love throwing to him. He’s a big body back there, someone that sets up a big target. He has a strong arm, a lot of raw ability.”
In the conference, Heenan is fourth in ERA, tied-second in wins and leads in strikeouts with 86. With Whitlock’s 3.02 ERA, all three central pitchers feature an ERA nearly at or below three runs.
Reeves attributes much of his and the staff’s pitching success to their relationship with their catcher behind the plate.
“He knows with me on the mound, when I shake it off, he knows what pitch I’m going to,” Reeves said. “We have to be on a key pretty much for every game, otherwise it’s going to be off. So far, we’ve done a great job pretty much being on the same page with everything.”
That relationship has aided in blossoming SU’s record, rattling off a 14-game win streak from March 28 to April 18. The stretch has put the Sea Gulls (26-10, 13-3 CAC) in prime position to make noise in the postseason once again, currently tied for first with CNU in the CAC.
Padeway’s mentality and early success in his career harkens back to what he learned watching LaBriola play last season.
“Being able to watch Tommy coming in as a freshman, seeing how he handled things and his approach at the plate and being able to do things behind the plate that he did, really helped me a lot,” Padeway said. “It made me realize what it takes to be a starting catcher here.”
With the final double-header of CAC-play coming on Saturday, the team will be in the postseason shortly. A big part of how far they will go will be determined by the success on the mound. When those pitches are delivered, the Sea Gull behind the mask has a new name. That name is Padeway.