Angels catcher Hank Conger, left, tags out Houston's Trevor Crowe… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
HOUSTON — The last time Angels reserve catcher Hank Conger spoke to reporters in Minute Maid Park, it was after his worst game of the season, a three-error night in a 7-6 loss to the Astros.
It was a different story Friday afternoon. Conger, who played sparingly in April and sporadically in May, was in the lineup for the second straight game, the combination of starter Chris Iannetta’s struggles and Conger’s improved overall play leading to more opportunity for the backup.
“I’m proud of how I bounced back after that game and didn’t let it affect me,” said Conger, whose throwing woes in spring training and early in the season cost him playing time. “I’m feeling more comfortable behind the plate — that’s the biggest thing.”
Defense is always the priority for Manager Mike Scioscia’s catchers. It doesn’t matter if they hit like Johnny Bench — or Mike Napoli, for that matter. If they aren’t adept at handling pitchers, receiving the ball, blocking balls in the dirt and controlling the running game, they’re going to lose playing time.
Conger, who is batting .253 with four home runs and 10 runs batted in in 38 games, has long been considered a more offensive-minded catcher, but his defense is starting to catch up with his bat, so much so that he’s been starting two or three games a week this month.
“He’s definitely receiving the ball well and making more consistent throws,” said Scioscia, a former Dodgers catcher. “He’s played well enough to earn more playing time and take a little of the burden off of Chris.”
Conger entered Friday having thrown out seven of 22 base-stealers, a 32% success rate that is much higher than Iannetta’s 11% rate (six of 55), though Iannetta has caught six of the nine games started by Tommy Hanson, who is notoriously bad at holding runners on. Since May 7, Conger has committed two errors in 16 games.
“Confidence is definitely a big thing,” said Conger, who is working with bullpen coach Steve Soliz and bullpen catcher Tom Gregorio on muscle memory drills and visualizing a target. “If you see a runner going or anticipate him going, you have the feeling you’re going to throw him out.
“When things are going bad, you have that sense of doubt. You try to block it out, but that’s easier said than done. This hasn’t been an overnight thing. I’ve worked my way up to where I am now, where I’m feeling confident behind the plate.”
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