When Vanderbilt arrives in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday for the College World Series, senior catcher Curt Casali will see a couple of familiar schools.
Both Virginia, the overall No. 1 seed, and North Carolina, Vanderbilt’s first opponent on Saturday, courted Casali nearly five years ago when he was at New Canaan (Conn.) High School.
“Virginia and North Carolina were my two top [choices],” Casali said.
Casali, however, was swept away by another suitor — quickly.
“I took my official visit here [at Vanderbilt] and I was sold,” he said. “If you just look at this place, it is unbelievable. You get the best of both worlds. I just graduated with a good degree, a top 20 degree. We are a national [sixth] seed in the NCAA Tournament. I think I have made myself a better baseball player and a better person.”
The decision strongly benefitted the Commodores, too — especially this season. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Casali is batting .306 with 20 doubles, nine home runs and 51 RBIs, which is the third on the team.
Head coach Tim Corbin’s move last month to switch Jason Esposito to the sixth spot in the lineup and bat Casali fourth has paid off as well. In five NCAA Tournament games, Casali has driven in six runs and scored five.
“I hate to minimize any kid on this team, but he is as valuable as anyone that we have because of his abilities behind the plate, because of his mindset,” Corbin said. “Then it is icing on the cake on what type of offense he gives you because he has been so consistent in that way too.”
Casali is just 13 of 32 when trying to throw baserunners out but his handling of the pitching staff is his biggest asset defensively. The coaching staff gives him total control in calling balls and strikes. Even with his big frame, he is still agile enough to keep balls thrown in the dirt from getting to the backstop.
“He has just been a stopper behind the plate,” Corbin said. “I look at how he catches Sonny Gray and how many balls he blocks and keeps in front of him. They don’t get away from him. His ability to cut down runners in the last half of the season has been good. “… He does everything. He makes out the practice plan. He tells my wife when I am going to be home. He is great. He does everything.”
On Saturday in the decisive second game of a Super Regional against Oregon State, Casali ended up with the last out in his mitt, catching Will Clinard’s third strike. Casali then rushed the mound, tackling Clinard and starting a dogpile in the infield as the Commodores celebrated clinching their first trip to the CWS.
It seemed appropriate that Casali sparked the frenzy at Hawkins Field. The 22-year-old is one of Vanderbilt’s obvious leaders — on the field and off. There also is probably no one who has endured more of a four-year roller coaster career than he has.
He played sparingly in 2008 as a freshman, serving as the backup catcher in 28 games. As a sophomore, he suffered a serious elbow injury. But he opted to put off surgery until after the season and started all 64 games, as a designated hitter and at first base — not his natural position. But the sacrifice helped the Commodores as he hit .336 with 10 home runs, 62 runs scored and a team-high 59 RBIs.
“I look back at his sophomore year as kind of a tell-tale sign of what type of kid he is when he took surgery and put it aside and played with a bum elbow for the entire year,” Corbin said.
Said Casali: “I wanted to help my team. I figured I could help them with my bat if I couldn’t help behind them plate or defensively. I tried really hard at first base. It was an unfamiliar position for me, but I did it for those guys. In the back of my mind, I think they would have done the exact same thing for me.”
A hamstring injury slowed Casali again last year. With then-senior Andrew Giobbi getting most of the starts at catcher, Casali was slotted as the designated hitter, batting .309 with 42 RBIs in 52 games (out of 64).
But this season — finally — Casali has been the guy behind the plate, starting 59 of 60 games at catcher.
“I like to think I saw it every single year that I have been here. I knew I had a big chip on my shoulder, and I want to show people I can catch and I think I have done that so far,” Casali said. “I have been healthy for once so it is exciting to stay in the lineup every day at a position I love and I know I can play well.”
Last week he was drafted in the 10th round by the Detroit Tigers, assuring that he will play more baseball.
Despite his offensive numbers throughout his career, it was the first time Casali had been drafted — he was eligible after last year. The bouncing around from position to position probably didn’t help his case.
Who knows, Casali’s college career might have been a lot of different if he had chosen another school. But that’s not the road he picked — and he is perfectly fine with that.
“If I would have gone anywhere else, I would have never have learned the things that I’ve learned and grown up,” he said. “I’ve grown up since I have been at Vandy so it is the best decision I have ever made.”