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Ex-Lobo Garver is embracing his role in Twins’ system

After ending his collegiate baseball career as the University of New Mexico’s iron man, Mitch Garver hit a wall in his first season as a professional.

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver.

Garver started a school-record 181 straight games for UNM and hit .390 last year, with six home runs and 68 RBIs.

While his senior season was a blast, Garver’s debut in pro ball was a dud.

Garver – a ninth-round selection in June’s MLB draft by the Minnesota Twins – tied for the team lead with 30 RBIs but hit .243, with two home runs and a .679 on-base plus slugging percentage, in 56 games with Elizabethton of the rookie Appalachian League in 2013.

“I was emotionally worn out, physically, mentally,” Garver said. “Things were starting to add up, and it’s kind of hard to get into a groove when you have teammates you’ve never met, you’re going to places you’ve never been before. It’s tough to do.”

After an offseason of getting to know his teammates and working out in Albuquerque, Garver is looking forward to getting a fresh start this season.

“I worked really hard in the offseason. I feel like my body is better suited for this than it ever has been,” Garver said. “I had a good spring, I learned a lot and got a lot of repetitions in. I was working at first base; I was catching, played a little DH. I got a lot of at-bats, got to see a lot of pitches, and I’m ready to get going.”

Garver got off to a hot start this season with the Single-A Cedar Rapids Kernels. After going 2-for-3 with two home runs and three RBIs on Friday night, Garver was hitting .320, with six RBIs, and leads the Midwest League with four homers in eight games. His 1.358 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is also tops in the league.

Garver also struggled initially when he came to UNM from La Cueva High in 2010 before excelling later in his career. As a freshman, Garver started just 11 games as he backed up eventual MLB draft pick Rafael Neda.

After Neda left, Garver started every game for the Lobos and showed gradual improvement as a sophomore, but really took off in his junior season.

After a pep talk from UNM head coach Ray Birmingham leading into the season, which included Birmingham telling Garver he would be a better player than Neda, Garver would again start every game and lead the Lobos with 68 runs and 27 doubles. His .377 batting average, 101 hits, 10 home runs, 57 RBIs, .612 slugging percentage, .438 on-base percentage and 164 total bases all were second best on the team.

“Soon as he got his confidence in his junior year, he was unbelievable,” Birmingham said. “Once he got across that line and realized he was as good as anybody, it was Katie bar the door, baby.”

Garver continued to excel as a senior. He was named the Mountain West Conference Co-Player of the Year and, for the second year in a row, was one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award – which honors college baseball’s top Division I catcher.

“I feel like he should’ve got the Johnny Bench Award last year,” Birmingham said. “He was the best catcher in the country. And he’s one of the greatest Lobo baseball players of all time.

“The guy who beat him out for the Johnny Bench Award was a higher draft pick, but he wasn’t a better baseball player.”

The guy who beat Garver for the Johnny Bench Award is Stuart Turner, the Twins’ third round pick in the 2013 draft and one four catchers picked by Minnesota last year.

Including Turner and Garver, the Twins have 16 players listed as catchers in their minor league system. But Birmingham says there is something that separates his former backstop from the rest of that group.

“I know who every one of (the catchers) are,” Birmingham said. “And there’s only one who is that versatile and that’s Mitch Garver.

“Mitch Garver for the University of New Mexico not only caught but he played first and he played the outfield. He’s the kind of guy that all big league teams need because they have a limited roster. This kid can catch and he won’t miss a beat, he’ll play first, he’ll play third and he’ll play all the outfield positions and he’ll really, really hit. Those guys are valuable. That’s the way I think he can get to the big leagues.”

Before he gets to Minnesota, however, Garver is embracing his sort of utility role with the Kernels, who are managed by Jake Mauer, older brother of Twins star Joe Mauer. Garver said he expects to catch about 75-80 percent of the time this season and play first base, in the outfield or DH on the days when he’s not behind the plate.

“It’s a challenge I like to face,” Garver said. “I think it’s important for a baseball player to play every position. If you’re just playing one position you don’t have as good of a chance to stay in the lineup. I want to stay in the lineup everyday if I can.”

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