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Inside the Bisons: What goes into calling a good game behind the plate?

It was the first day back in Buffalo after a nine-game road trip which ended on a sour note – an 8-7 loss at Lehigh Valley. Starting pitcher Ryan Borucki gave up five runs, including a home run, in a seven-inning outing.

Buffalo Bisons manager Bobby Meacham knew what to expect back in the Coca-Cola Field clubhouse. He knew walking back into the locker room he would see catcher Reese McGuire going over the game with Borucki. The catcher and pitcher would have a postmortem about the outing to review what went right, what went wrong. To see where they were on the same page and where Borucki on the mound saw things differently than McGuire behind the plate.

The game-by-game review between pitcher and catcher is standard in baseball.

But the Bisons catchers this year, McGuire and Danny Jansen, have taken ownership of those meetings, have taken responsibility for the relationship with the pitching staff.

"They’ve taken it upon themselves," Meacham said. "They’ve done a great job. They’re doing awesome. They’ve even taken things a step further than we have asked them to by talking to the pitchers.

That relationship is the hallmark of Jansen and McGuire's success as catchers. It's the reason why each pitcher who has come through the Bisons has given credit to their catcher when asked about their latest successful outing.

Jansen, 23, was a 16th-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013 and currently ranks as the No. 6 prospect in the team's organization, according to MLB.com.

McGuire, 23, was a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school in 2013. He came to the Blue Jays organization in 2016 as part of a trade that sent Francisco Liriano and Harold Ramirez to the Blue Jays for Drew Hutchison. McGuire is now the 14th-ranked prospect in the Blue Jays organization, according to MLB.com.

Each played at three levels last season. Jansen played a total of 104 games, including 21 with the Bisons. McGuire appeared in only 45 games and then hit .283 with Aquilas Cibaenas in the winter league in the Dominican Republic.

The pair played parts of last season together and both rose to the make their first Triple A Opening Day roster with the Bisons this spring.

And both have been making a positive impact for the Herd's pitching staff.

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Talk to a Bisons pitcher, any Bisons pitcher, after he's thrown a good game and picked up a win or a save and he will automatically credit either Jansen or McGuire for calling a good game.

"He did a great job of keeping me in that rhythm and not having to overthink anything," Deck McGuire said after one of his outings.

"It’s incredible honestly," Justin Dillon said after a recent win. "First time I got here, (McGuire) didn’t even know me, and it was just an instant connection. My last outing I didn’t have my slider so I went to my curveball. This outing I didn’t have my curveball so I went back to the slider but instantly he picked it up. The knowledge that they have is incredible."

But what goes into calling a good game goes right back to that relationship, that connection that Dillon noticed on his first trip up to Triple A. For a catcher, the biggest part of the game is knowing your pitcher.

"That's the biggest part of catching for sure is just trying to get the best out of each guy out there and know what it's going to take to get the best out of him," McGuire said. "You know each guy is different. It's just constant learning. That's the best part is we're always learning throughout the season."

Jansen and McGuire have been staples behind the plate for the Bisons this season but the guys on the mound, well, there's constant turnover at the minor league level. They're familiar with a good number of pitchers with whom they have worked their way up the Blue Jays system. But there have been plenty of new (or at least new-to-them) pitchers.

Success depends on two things – making sure the new guy feels comfortable and learning as much as they can about the pitcher's tendencies.

McGuire said they will sit down with a new pitcher and ask questions:

What kind of pitches have you been throwing this year? What's been working for you? How do you like to attack guys? What do you like to throw for a first strike? How do you like to finish off a hitter with two strikes?

"Sometimes people like to use their fastball late in counts, some people like to just stick with their slider or breaking ball late in counts," McGuire said. "That's something you've got to talk over before the game. ... And both me and Jansen make it clear with the pitchers who come up, if we put a signal down and that's something that maybe you don't feel comfortable doing or you haven't done it all year, don't feel like you've got to do it. Shake it off and we'll put down another signal for whatever they're comfortable with."

While McGuire and Jansen have been in Buffalo all season, this is their first stint at Triple A. Which means learning new hitters. By now, they've got a grasp of most of the batters they'll face in the International League. Knowing the hitters is helpful, but not as important as knowing your pitcher.

McGuire explains it this way: If a hitter's weakness is a high fastball but the pitcher on the mound is Chris Rowley or Taylor Guerrieri, both of whom throw sinkerballs to get ground outs, the decision is to go with his pitcher's strength rather than to try and exploit a hitter's weakness.

This is what makes the pitchers love working with Jansen and McGuire. They have an ability to use your strengths to get the most from your outing. Then afterward, they offer feedback that motivates pitchers to get better.

"I've been working this year on my slider and curveball more," said reliever Conor Fisk. "I'm trying to get strikeouts down in the zone at this level. So I'll throw the pitch and a guy will take it and I’m like 'man I think he should have swung but he didn't.' They'll tell me it was a good pitch, it was just a good take. Keep going, keep working at it. It's positive feedback."

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