James Madison junior catcher Jake Lowery (Midlothian, Va./Cosby) was selected as the recipient of the 2011 Coleman Company-Johnny Bench Award delivered by Papa John’s Pizza on Thursday night at a banquet hosted by the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission.
The award is handed out annually to the top catcher in all of college baseball and is named in honor of former Major League All-Star, MVP, World Series champion and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, who was on hand to present the award.
“I got a lot of other great honors but this is the biggest one,” stated Lowery following the awards banquet. “Just being with the other guys as the three best catchers in the nation was great but to win the award is a great feeling. Just to cap off a great season like this is pretty special and I’m very thankful for it.”
“He’s very deserving of the honor,” added JMU head coach Spanky McFarland from Wichita. “I’m glad that the voters didn’t just casually vote for a big name school but actually looked at his body of work and his value to our team. We’re very proud of him and I know his parents and teammates are all proud of him. It’s an award shared by everyone involved with the program.”
Lowery was joined at the banquet by fellow finalists Mike Zunino of national runner-up Florida as well as Chris O’Brien of Wichita State. After spending the afternoon hosting a catching clinic for local youth, the three finalists attended the banquet along with their head coaches and family members.
The entire time in Wichita left a lasting impact on Lowery. He commented, “It’s been a rush. Getting here was crazy with airport connections. I got to see my parents for the first time in a few weeks. Coach Mac and even [assistant] coach [Jason] Middleton came to the banquet. Then of course getting to meet Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer and the best catcher in baseball history, that was a great experience. The clinic with the kids was great; there aren’t a lot of catching clinics out there. Then being in the hospital and visiting kids and signing autographs, the whole experience was neat and it’s been awesome.”
Previous winners of the award include TCU’s Bryan Holaday (2010), Oklahoma’s J.T. Wise (2009), Florida State’s Buster Posey (2008), Mississippi State’s Edward Easley (2007), East Carolina’s Jake Smith (2006), Southern Cal’s Jeff Clement (2005), Cal State Fullerton’s Kurt Suzuki (2004), Stanford’s Ryan Garko (2003), Alabama’s Jeremy Brown (2002), Baylor’s Kelly Shoppach (2001) and LSU’s Brad Cresse (2000). Lowery is the first Colonial Athletic Association player to win the award and just the second to be named a finalist (Chris Henderson, George Mason 2009).
Lowery orchestrated one of the most offensively dominant seasons in school history in 2011 and added solid defensive marks as well. In addition to the Bench honor, he has been rewarded with six different All-America honors, including First Team by Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America, Second Team by the American Baseball Coaches Association, National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Perfect Game along with being a national all-star selection by College Baseball Lineup.
A fourth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians in the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Lowery took a brief leave from the Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the New York-Penn League in order to attend the banquet. The nation’s collegiate RBI and total bases leader is picking up where he left off, leading the New York-Penn league with 27 total bases and ranking third with 10 RBIs and first with six doubles while hitting .313 for the Scrappers, who sit in first place in the Pinckney Division at 9-4.
In his junior campaign at JMU, Lowery batted .359 with 22 doubles, eight triples, 24 home runs, 91 RBIs, 80 runs scored, 200 total bases and a .797 slugging percentage. He set or matched JMU and CAA records for RBIs, home runs, extra-base hits (54) and total bases in a season. He also finished fourth in CAA history with 80 runs and seventh for slugging percentage.
Lowery finished as the nation’s leader in runs (80), RBIs (91) and total bases (200). In fact, his 91 RBIs are the most by a college player since 2008 Bench Award winner Buster Posey (San Francisco Giants catcher) had 93. Lowery also finished second nationally in slugging percentage (.797), fourth in on-base plus slugging (1.239), second in home runs (24) and fourth in triples (8). Not to be overlooked defensively, Lowery ranked second in the nation prior to regionals for runners caught stealing with 34 and threw out 43% of runners for the season while posting a .994 fielding percentage.
In addition to the Bench Award, Lowery was one of 30 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Award and one of 36 on the watch list for the Dick Howser Trophy, both given to the nation’s top player. Collegiate Baseball newspaper bestowed upon Lowery the fourth First Team All-America honor in JMU history. He was the CAA Player of the Year, First Team All-CAA, selected to the CAA All-Tournament Team, honored on the NCAA All-Regional Team and named First Team All-East Region by the ABCA.
As a team, JMU went 42-19 overall in 2011 while winning the regular season in the CAA at 21-9 and claiming the program’s second CAA Championship with a 3-0 run in the league tournament. The Dukes won multiple games in a regional and finished as the runner-up in a regional for the first time since 1983. They established season records for games (61), runs (541), RBIs (486), triples (27), hit batters (85), sacrifice flies (47) and innings pitched (550 1/3).
McFarland reflected on the significance of the award in relation to other accomplishments in program history. He added, “Obviously when Kellen Kulbacki won his award in 2006, that was huge. We’ve had two-time Players of the Year and a Pitcher of the Year. But the fact that this was voted on by other college coaches means a lot to me. It’s not just one media outlet or a few select coaches but he was picked by a large group of coaches from across the nation. It was a special night and neat experience.”
Lowery will now return to Mahoning Valley for games Friday and Saturday before then traveling to Lubbock, Texas for the 2011 College Baseball Hall of Fame annual awards banquet. There he will join other national award winners for one combined college baseball banquet. The college baseball awards show can be viewed Tuesday evening, July 5, at MLB.com.