High School Sports

Power-hitting Ole Miss commit focused on getting defensive

Yadier Molina is widely considered to be one of the best defensive catchers of his generation. The St. Louis Cardinals leader has built a reputation as a crafty backstop who shuts down the opposition’s run game. His defense was what helped him climb the minor league ranks, but in recent years his bat has more than held its own in the Cardinals’ lineup.

Hayden Dunhurst has admired Molina’s work for a while now. The Pearl River Central sophomore and Ole Miss commit already has a reputation as a power threat but it’s his defense — patterned after Molina’s — he’s proudest of. Hitting home runs is fun and all, but Dunhurst really gets a rush when he steps behind the plate.

“I love the way (Molina) receives the ball,” Dunhurt said Saturday between games against West Harrison and Ocean Springs. “He’s a leader out there and controls everything. He controls the pitchers and that’s what I’m trying to do when I’m back there.

“I’m trying to control the whole game and slow the game down for them — like we’re playing catch.”

How valuable is he behind the plate? PRC skipper and reigning Sun Herald Coach of the Year Neil Walther said the 5-foot-11, 210-pound sophomore can throw upward of 88 miles per hour off the mound, but he hasn’t thrown an inning, yet, because of his importance on defense.

“He’s very quiet,” Walther said. “We work on it some, but he brings that. He came into the program as an eighth-grader already having that. To me, he’s our most valuable defensive player even if he doesn’t throw anybody out. He makes the pitchers better.”

One of Dunhurt’s defensive attributes is his quietness behind the plate. Although he’s still young, he has developed a stillness behind the plate and doesn’t need a lot of extraneous movement to make the play.

“He’ll get you some calls because he sticks ’em, he doesn’t take balls out of the zone, he blocks well and really limits what the other team can do on the bases,” Walther said. “If you make a mistake with a walk or error, there are some people who have been able to run on him, but it’s tough. Usually they’re running on pitchers, not him.”

Dunhurst backed up his coach’s statement early in Saturday’s game against WHHS. The Hurricanes batter reached first but was gunned down attempting to swipe second.

“I’m very, very comfortable with him,” PRC pitcher Hayden LeBeau said of Dunhurst. “He blocks everything up and competes every single pitch. Like in the first inning, he saved the play by throwing the guy out at second. I threw an outside pitch and he threw a perfect throw to get him right in the side of the leg.”

It was difficult play to even get close as Dunhurst had to reach across his body before firing to second. It was a next-level play.

Dunhurst may play with quiet glove, but he wields a potentially loud bat.

Developing power

As a freshman last season, Dunhurst led PRC regulars with four homers and a .476 slugging percentage. He walked 30 times against 25 strikeouts — also team-highs.

Dunhurst is off to a slower start this year, with two homers, a triple, double and .206 batting average through 11 games, but he still boasts a .470 slugging percentage and .413 on-base percentage that’s boosted by 10 walks.

“At times I think he tries to get a little big, but he’s young,” Walther said. “He’s so dang strong and has such good eyes that if he just finds the barrel.... He’s just 16 years old. How good is he going to be at 18? I mean, he just started driving.

“He’s just getting better and better.”

Perfect Game included Dunhurt in a scouting report in July. Jheremy Brown raved about Dunhurst’s potential.

“He consistently did a nice job of staying short and simple with his swing and proved willing to use the opposite field,” Brown wrote. “... The overall power will continue to come as he continues to incorporate additional lower half into his swing but for now it’s an advanced hit tool and noteworthy barrel skills for a player who hasn’t yet started his sophomore season.”

The evaluation matches Dunhurst’s batting approach.

“I’m trying to go to left-center every single pitch no matter what the count is,” he said. “If they miss inside I react and hit it as hard as I can. That’s my mentality.”

Pitching, too?

Dunhurst hasn’t seen the mound this season largely because of his defensive responsibilities. Walther isn’t ruling it out, though, should the right situation present itself.

He tested out Dunhurst on the mound as a freshman last year. He struck out five in 2 1/3 innings but also allowed three earned runs. When he’s on, Walther said, he can be dangerous.

“When we were working with him pitching, this kid can bring an 89 to 90 mph fastball and it’s his third pitch,” he said. “His curveball is disgusting and his changeup is his best pitch. There’s so much movement. That thing is sick.

“It’s the best changeup on the team and he doesn’t even pitch.”

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs