BOSTON - Major league catchers take a beating behind the plate. It goes with the territory.
There are foul tips off fingers, jarring blows to facemasks and, even in the aftermath of new rules regarding slides, vicious collisions with baserunners.
Those are all well-known parts of the job. Goes with the territory, catchers will shrug and say.
But what happened to Ryan Hanigan Wednesday night -- and last Friday night in Houston, for that matter -- was a different sort of test.
It was Hanigan's job to coral Steven Wright's knuckleball, dipping and darting in most unpredictable ways. Even the Atlanta Braves hitters seemingly had an easier time hitting the pitch than Hanigan did catching it.
Forget 99-mph fastballs; the toughest pitch for a catcher to handle is a knuckler that may not top 75 mph.
From the second through the fourth inning, Hanigan battled and boxed balls, almost blocking and tackling them -- when he wasn't chasing them to the backstop, that is.
"It was really dancing tonight,'' said Hanigan after the Red Sox' 9-4 win over Atlanta. "I think the wind played a factor. It was going all over the place.''
And, so, at times, was Hanigan, scrambling to keep the ball in front of him, and, occasionally, going to retrieve it.
In the fourth inning, Erick Aybar reached on a strikeout passed ball, took second base, and eventually third on two more passed balls. He was
one more floating, errant knuckler away from circling the bases despite never making contact with a pitch, or being advanced by a teammate making contact.
All Hanigan could do was hold on -- make that TRY to hold on -- for dear life.
"I was talking to the [home plate] umpire back there,'' chuckled Hanigan. "It was going up, down, left, right...It's always a battle. It's
tough - every time I catch it, it's a small victory. Some days, it's more consistent in the way it moves. Some days, it's darting left and right and all over. It was one of those nights. I struggled a little bit with some of them back there.
"You're not going to catch all of them. That's just how it is. You have to try to stay positive, try working with him back there, keep him in his rhythm and [have him] throw as many strikes as he can.''
Problem is, even the strikes can be difficult to catch. At the last possible instant, the knuckleball can evade Hanigan's mitt, like a butterfly eluding capture.
Wright can't help but have some sympathy for his batterymate.
"There's times where it can get frustrating [for him],’’ said Wright. "He does a great job. I can't give enough credit to him and what he's done.''
The paradox, of course, is that Wright wants the ball to move as much as possible to confound the hitters. Hanigan does too, but he has to deal with the consequences.
"The ones that stay high,'' he explained, "you expect a little drop. But they just don't. They tip off the top [of the catcher's mitt]. Those are tough. He had them really darting tonight. It just takes a left turn on me. Those are tough. But that's what you want. So I just try to knock 'em down.
"You just can't really anticipate which way it's going to go. One will go right, one will go left, one will be flat, one will kind of take off. And I think the wind [is a factor]. It helps [Wright].’’
While at the same time, hurting Hanigan.
Wright lasted seven innings, allowing just one unearned run. Hanigan then went back to conventional pitchers Tommy Layne and Matt Barnes.
"Man, when I put the other glove on...it's all gravy after that,'' he said. "There's predictability as to which way the ball is going to move, at least to some extent. With the knuckleball, it does what it wants.''
And it's Hanigan's thankless task to catch it. Or chase after it.