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One at-bat puts catcher on the radar

The first pitch Tom Murphy crushed was a 93 miles per hour heater that had plenty of distance but was pulled just foul. Scouts in Fenway Park that afternoon must have figured it was a fluke, considering the players involved, with Murphy barely on their radar and Kevin Gausman a top pitching prospect in the country.

Murphy wasn't sure what to expect when he anchored his feet into the batters' box for the next pitch, after hitting a fastball more than 400 feet. Gausman might have figured Murphy was thinking breaking ball. Maybe he could sneak a fastball past him. Then again, look where Murphy deposited the fastball.

Stop thinking like a hitter, Murphy told himself, and start thinking like a catcher. Gausman throws hard and has great stuff. It's why he played at LSU and why Team USA selected him. What pitch would he call with a 2-1 count in the same situation? Changeup or curveball? Maybe. Definitely something off-speed.


Gausman, picked by the Dodgers in the 2010 draft and named the No. 4 pitching prospect by Baseball America, came with a hard slider that he left in the middle of the plate. Murphy drove the pitch to left-center, well beyond the famed Green Monster. It wasn't a fluke. It was a good swing by the University at Buffalo catcher using a wood bat.

"I hate being beat with a fastball, especially when it's one I know I can drive," Murphy said Monday. "I'm usually sitting fastball and reacting to the speed or the spin or whatever. That at-bat was the rare occasion where I knew a fastball wasn't coming. I sat off-speed, and it worked for me."

Yeah, it worked.

Murphy was lightly recruited in high school and earned only a partial scholarship to UB. He spent two years transforming his body into a 6-foot-1, 225-pound baseball machine. He had been named Mid-American Conference player of the year after hitting .384 with 10 homers and 44 RBIs as a sophomore.

He remained mostly obscure, despite playing for a summer all-star team with players from the New England Collegiate Baseball League against top college players picked by USA Baseball. Years of hard work turned him into one of the best catchers in the nation, but one at-bat against Gausman changed his life.

Now, the secret is out.

Baseball America named Murphy the top prospect in the New England league last summer, and he finished the year with U.S. Collegiate team. He was batting .333 with seven homers and 37 RBIs in 35 games for UB this season. He's certain to get taken in the draft June 4.

"I've heard top five rounds," UB head coach Ron Torgalski said. "Some guys have told me as high as the second round. It depends on needs of organizations. We've had every Major League team in here to sit down with him and talk to him.

"It's hard to find a guy like that. Usually, if he can hit, he's a wreck behind the plate. Or he's a great catch-and-throw guy who handles pitchers but is an average hitter. The fact that he does both makes him a hot commodity."

Murphy was one of 50 players selected in February for the Golden Spikes Watch List, a precursor to the award given to the top amateur baseball player in the country. Trevor Bauer won it last season. The seven previous winners were Bryce Harper, Steven Strasburg, Buster Posey, David Price, Tim Lincecum, Alex Gordon and Jered Weaver.

It's hard to fathom, really, that a player from UB is even considered for baseball's Heisman Trophy.

If you believe recruiting is difficult for Buffalo in football, imagine the struggle in baseball. UB baseball goes largely ignored in this region, including the university itself. You could understand one reason Monday when looking outside, with all the snow flying and warnings about a heavy storm.

But there's more.

The Bulls offer 7 1/2 full scholarships, four fewer than most teams in the MAC. They're diced up so many ways that there's barely anything left to build good teams, let alone draw top players. They don't even have an indoor hitting facility. Their ballpark behind Northtowns Center is like something you find behind many high schools in the South.

"It's always an issue," Murphy said. "Our facilities are some of the worst in the MAC, and everybody knows it. We're trying make it public so maybe the new [athletics director] can fix it. We don't even own our field; it's owned by the town. It's frustrating, but you make do with it and hope you're going to a nice place on the weekend."

Heck, you'll find more scouts taking notes on Murphy than you'll find fans at any given UB game. There were about three dozen scouts watching Sunday at Ohio University, where UB was handed a 4-1 loss for its sixth-straight defeat. The Bulls have a 10-26 record and have lost 11 of 14 conference games.

That's what makes Murphy's story so incredible. His name looks out of place on a watch list decorated with players from power conferences such as the ACC, Big 12, SEC and Pac 12. Teams are loaded with players from the South or California. And then you scroll down the list and find this:

Tom Murphy, C, Junior, Buffalo, Mid-American.

"Whenever college baseball is on TV and I see those players there, I almost get frustrated watching it," Murphy said. "I know my capabilities are better than what they had. A lot of it is geographical issues, but I played with USA, so I played with all those kids. They're supposedly the best in the country. To tell you the truth, there's not much difference skill-wise. There's nothing that's not attainable."

Murphy is one of only three full-time catchers on the watch list, which is picked by USA Baseball and scouts from around the country. A midseason list of 60 will be released next week, and it will be trimmed before a winner is named July 13. Murphy might not make the next top 60, even though he's having another good year.

He's second behind left fielder Matt Pollock in batting average this season and leads the Bulls in RBIs and walks. He has good speed for a catcher (he has two triples and five stolen bases) and had a big-time arm when he arrived from West Monroe, just north of Syracuse, after getting little attention from big-time baseball schools.

Murphy's emergence can only help UB. Scouts who have been coming to coming to see him play might find another good player worth a second peek. It takes more than one great at-bat and a memorable home run, but Murphy has proven how much can change with one good swing.

"It was a 180-degree difference," he said. "A lot of scouts I talked to after that game didn't even know who I was, even after winning MAC player of the year and the season I had [as] a sophomore. They had no clue who I was before they saw that at-bat. One swing changed my whole career."