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Murphy molds Castro into All-Star backstop

Murphy molds Castro into All-Star backstop

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Murphy molds Castro into All-Star backstop

ST. LOUIS -- When Jeff Murphy got to work on Tuesday, he needed directions.

Murphy walked into Busch Stadium, where he worked for a dozen seasons, completely unaware of the visiting clubhouse's location.

After all, the last time Murphy had been at the ballpark, he was celebrating a World Series victory in 2011 with the home team -- the only team he had ever known.

Now the Astros' bullpen catcher and catching instructor -- the same position he held in St. Louis from 2000-11 under former Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa -- Murphy spotted a familiar face, hopping into a golf cart with a parking lot security guard who showed him the way.

In Murphy's 12 years with the Cardinals, his starting catchers hauled in seven Gold Glove Awards between current Cards manager Mike Matheny and National League MVP Award candidate Yadier Molina.

It's difficult to tell if Murphy has just been spoiled with elite catching talent or if it's Murphy's guidance that elevated Matheny and Molina to the top of their games. But there's no doubt that the modest Murphy has played a significant role in their success.

"He was my mentor," Molina said. "He was right on top of me every time I did something bad. He wasn't afraid to tell me. He worked with me and he was a great person, great friend."

The 42-year-old Murphy, with a solid frame and handlebar mustache that matches his red-orange hair, is more than a year removed from working with the Cardinals, but he's back to doing what he does best with the Astros, going from five-time All-Star Molina to first-time All-Star Jason Castro.

After spending what he calls one of the best years of his life at home in Marthasville, Mo., in 2012, enjoying being a full-time father to his three children, Murphy was lured back to baseball. The opportunity to work with a young core of catchers and build from the ground up in Houston intrigued him.

"It's fun to have those young kids and be in there and try to bring something new that's worked for so long in the St. Louis Cardinals organization to another organization and help a whole new crew of catchers," Murphy said.

Murphy has taken much of what worked for Molina -- things like hand drills and different setup techniques -- and applied it to Castro. And the 26-year-old backstop is having the best season of his young career, making his first of what could be many All-Star Game appearances.

"He definitely brought a lot of knowledge and wisdom from the things that helped Yadi," Castro said. "A lot of that helped me -- just kind of quiet things down behind the plate and kind of refine some of the finer things about catching."

When he arrived last winter, Murphy immediately instituted what he calls "early work," getting his catchers in the cages every morning, a routine he always had in St. Louis, the organization he spent his entire professional career with (five seasons in the Minors from 1992-96).

Murphy and Castro focused on blocking, something Castro had been having trouble with, particularly due to limited mobility coming off a torn ACL in his right knee that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season. They tweaked Castro's stance, freeing up his glove to receive the ball more smoothly. But both Murphy and Castro agree, finally feeling healthy was the most crucial adjustment to Castro's game, giving him back some of the lateral movement he had lost and building confidence in his knee at a position susceptible to knee injuries.

"Coming off of this injury, I had a lot of catch-up to do," Castro said. "This spring, I really wanted to get as comfortable as I could, so we hit the ground running as soon as we got to camp. I feel like that's played a huge part in some of the success I've had behind the plate this year."

While he has taken much of what he learned working with Molina and Matheny and applied it to the young Astros catchers, Murphy insists there is no cookie-cutter approach that can be used for every catcher. He studies what's effective for each player and works individually from there, particularly when his last catcher is in a league of his own.

"Yadi is on a different planet," Murphy said. "His confidence level is through the roof. If somebody didn't know Yadi, they'd think, 'Oh, he's just kind of lackadaisical.' But he's not. He just believes in what he does and he makes everything look so easy. If you try to compare a lot of people to Yadier, they're never going to match up."

But that doesn't mean he doesn't see the potential in Castro to rise to the levels of the five-time Gold Glove Award winner.

"It's just a matter of staying healthy and getting the time in behind the plate, because he's not going to cheat himself, I know that," Murphy said. "He's not going to quit on himself. He's going to work his tail off to make himself the best catcher he can."

When asked if he saw any similarities between himself and Castro, the 5-foot-11 Molina laughed.

"He's 6-4."

Molina did, however, agree on one shared quality -- an insatiable need to to always improve.

"That kid has some talent," Molina said. "Every day he needs to keep working. He needs to keep working, like I do, too."

Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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